During the past six months, COVID-induced impacts for older adults in the U.S. and Maine have been considerable. This segment of the population has had more than its share of fatal blows and disruptive shocks to their well-being.

First and foremost, they have, far more frequently, paid the ultimate price during the pandemic: In number and proportion, COVID-19 fatalities for seniors far exceed that of any other age group.

As of Aug. 29, the CDC reported 106,856 COVID-19 deaths nationally among those 65 years and over, or 79.3% of all known COVID-19 deaths. By the week ending Aug. 16, a total of 49,871 COVID-19 deaths were recorded among nursing home residents alone.

Those 65-74 years old are 90 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those 18-29 years old (the standard comparison group). Those 75-84 have a 220 times greater likelihood of death and those 85 and older, a 630 times greater likelihood of death. Though 85 and older Americans make up only 2% of the U.S. population, they comprise 30% of those who have died from COVID19.

At 82%, the share of Maine COVID-19 deaths among those over 65 years of age is higher than their share of Maine deaths from all causes (77%).

It has been argued that the early, almost exclusive focus during the pandemic on acute care and critical resources was not in the best interests of those over age 65, who are overrepresented in nursing homes. Better access to protective equipment for nursing home staff, early testing of these staff and patients, and enhanced communication with families proved to be desperately needed but not provided in long-term care settings early in the pandemic.

A series of other negative impacts have beset older Americans and Mainers as well.

Like previous economic downturns, the pandemic and accompanying recession can be expected to negatively impact pensions, savings and assets, all of which older adults are especially dependent on.

The overlap between the health and economic impacts of the pandemic appears undeniable. The increase in the already high cost of health care, food and other services will hike out-of-pocket expenditures and deplete precious savings, especially for those surviving on limited income and resources. The National Council on Aging has predicted that pandemic-caused financial hardships will push between 1.4 million and 2.1 million older Americans into poverty.

COVID-19 has resulted in unprecedented numbers of unemployed citizens. AARP research has documented that older workers are highly vulnerable to layoffs during times of economic uncertainty and would have greater difficulty getting rehired at previous wage levels. Many jobs held by older adults, especially in rural settings, did not allow for them to transition to working remotely even if they had had reliable broadband and the needed technology, which many did not. A post-pandemic, highly competitive, labor market could lead to greater difficulty for older adults obtaining gainful employment. The pandemic has already resulted in a significant uptick in early retirements and that is expected to have permanent negative financial consequences.

A hidden health risk of the COVID-19 pandemic struck older adults with a vengeance — social isolation. They have been told to remain home to reduce risk of exposure. Sheltering-in-place has meant less contact with family, friends, and the places where they socialized, volunteered, and remained engaged.

Even before the pandemic, almost a quarter of older adults were socially isolated and as many as a third lonely. These numbers have, no doubt, increased.

Lesser access to and comfort with using internet-based communications technology will segregate older adults even more. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with a variety of health-related ailments including chronic diseases and mental health disorders and is a risk factor for premature death. Pandemic-induced isolation has likely increased the frequency of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation as well.

Older adults have been severely and disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Policy, programmatic and individual responses are critical. There are more risks to consider than just their exposure to the virus.

Social distancing must not be equated with social isolation. Employers, health care systems, and families must consider both the health and economic burdens created by workforce displacement and stay-at-home advisories for older adults during the pandemic. We must ensure they are not discriminated against, ostracized or made voiceless, but rather kept engaged and motivated.

Our response to the virus’s impact on older adults should include prevention measures that guard against unintended harmful outcomes including improved access to age friendly, health care services, ample work opportunities, expanded telemedicine options, support for family caregivers, funding for isolation-reducing services, and increased responsibility assumed by the public to check-in on our fellow citizens.

This whole-person approach, advanced by the American Society on Aging, is critical. We must not protect older adults from COVID-19 only to put them at risk of other assaults on their health and well-being.

Lenard Kaye is a professor of social work and director of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear here monthly.


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