Older adults were among the most vulnerable populations during the pandemic. Besides staying safe from the coronavirus, they had to cope with aging during a pandemic with limited caregivers, isolation and finding new ways to receive health care.
Dr. Preeti Malani is the chief health officer and professor of medicine for the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Michigan. She says places where the elderly congregated were hotbeds of infection early in the COVID-19 crisis.
“The epicenter of the pandemic in the United States was really in nursing homes. … People who are older are every bit as important as young and healthy people.” —Dr. Preeti Malani
“The epicenter of the pandemic in the United States was really in nursing homes. And there’s a lot of discussions that this virus doesn’t hurt you if you’re young and healthy, it only affects you if you’re frail. Which, first of all, people who are older are every bit as important as young and healthy people,” she says.
Malani says while the focus shifted to COVID-19, new health issues arose among older adults — such as physical, social, emotional and their intellectual needs being ignored.
“We saw this with loneliness with separation of families. People couldn’t go and visit their loved ones and families who often were very involved with day-to-day caregiving were not allowed to be in that space because the risk was so high around COVID,” she says.
She says telehealth became a go-to method to receive health care needs, but that came with limitations.
“We did a poll on this with a National Poll on Healthy Aging. Prior to the pandemic back in 2019 only about 4% of older adults had ever had a telehealth visit. Between March and June of 2020 that number went to 26% and this was adults 50 to 80,” she says.
Malani says while telehealth is good, it’s not for everyone.
“I saw this within my own family … just difficulties accessing the technology, difficulties really understanding and being able to hear and see affected many older adults,” she says.
Throughout the pandemic, people relied heavily on technology in other ways too — like connecting with loved ones on social media. Malani says people connected with those close by such as neighbors and figured out how to lean on each other for everyday needs like getting groceries and medicine as they tried to overcome barriers.
“Really changing a lot of things in order to decrease risk of COVID. But I don’t think it was equal in terms of the access to use these technologies and other interventions to try and ease some of the barriers,” she says.
Pandemic Separated Families and Caregivers
“Certain communities, certain cultures, they don’t necessarily want outsiders to care for their loved ones. All of this became much more complicated because, from a public health standpoint, the guidance was keep your community small, don’t have people coming in and out of your house,” she says.
In intergenerational homes, things were complicated. Older adults were cared for and perhaps were less lonely, but those living with them had to be more mindful of going about their lives to not infect them. She says some families moved their parents into their homes to help with caregiving and assisting with virtual school during the pandemic so they could continue to work.
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“To have older adults in your home when you have children that maybe are going to school, or going to activities, or going to work for that matter or other adults, younger adults who are also working as an essential worker … or a health care worker, that risk became complicated to manage.”
She says quarantining in a home could be difficult depending on space.
“If someone had to be quarantined in the home, it might be easy if you have a very large home and the ability to quarantine someone, but if you have someone in the home that needs care, and it’s a smaller, more crowded space, these things became very, very complicated for people. You can’t really socially distance from your family.”
Malani says the pandemic was a difficult time for those who lost family, relatives and friends.
“Within my own social circle, I have friends who were unable to attend their own parents’ funeral services. Being on Zoom or being on FaceTime is not the same as being present,” she says.
She says we have to find ways to move forward. That may require wearing masks, being outdoors and physical distancing.
“People weren’t able to have the same kind of interaction that they normally would have had with the older adults in their families,” she says.
Malani says as we continue to learn how to adapt and manage through the pandemic, she believes some things like telehealth will become a new norm going forward.
Listen: How the pandemic exacerbated health issues for older adults.
“There’s a Risk in Not Finding Ways to Get Together Safely”
Malani says despite the hardships people faced, they learned how to depend on each other. She says the pandemic revealed issues that were already prevalent for older adults with a magnifying glass on issues like loneliness and holistic health care.
“As we move forward and the pandemic is not over, although we have the tools to at least control it and live alongside with it, we need to make sure that we are focused on the whole person, every aspect of their health.”
She says it’s important to find ways to gather, by taking the proper precautions, with older adults rather than leaving them in isolation. Malani says she lost her own grandmother last year, not due to COVID-19, but still felt the loss as something unique during the pandemic.
“There’s a risk in not finding ways to get together and to get together safely. Especially as we move into this next holiday season, for families that are fully vaccinated, that are following good practices. Because this has been uniquely difficult for older adults and for certain communities more than others. And that the risk won’t be zero, but we can all work together to manage that risk to make it very acceptable.”
This story was reported with support from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations, and the Silver Century Foundation.