How COVID-19 is impacting American seniors

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November 26, 2020
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How COVID-19 is impacting American seniors

The COVID-19 pandemic has rippled around the world, but for older people, the risk and social stresses are elevated. In America, older people are supported by Medicare and public benefits like Social Security—thankfully, these services continue and have helped seniors to cope with the pandemic. But seniors face higher risks of complications, more likelihood to catch the virus from a visitor, and more.

Stacker compiled a list of 25 ways the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting older Americans, using data from the CDC, AARP, the Center for Medicare Statistics, and even the IRS. People who live in care homes around the country may be at the greatest risk for the factors that affect seniors, combining close quarters with a steady stream of healthcare workers. Even when everyone exercises great care, the small likelihoods still add up.

The CARES Act that sent stimulus money to many Americans also added some robust protections that benefit seniors. That includes expanded uses for HSA funds, expanded limits and reduced penalties on 401k withdrawals, and a suspension of spending requirements on retirees. But without further action, other financial issues faced by seniors will become problematic. In just the first quarter of 2020, 401k values fell 19%. Social Security recipients turning 60 this year could lose 9% of their future benefits based strictly on the 2020 economy.

That’s on top of the many reported health issues that seniors face, from increased complications from COVID-19 to the basic elevated risks associated with any hospitalization. In states where cases are surging now, cases in care homes are surging way more. Seniors are less likely to have good outcomes from ventilators, and they spend more time in the hospital than others. Even seniors who have mild COVID-19 at home must be cared for with more vigilance.

Experts encourage seniors to make plans and explore all their possible resources in order to really limit these risk factors. Read on for 25 of the biggest ways the pandemic has disproportionately affected seniors.

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Expanded uses for HSAs

Older Americans may have health savings accounts (HSAs), and the 2020 CARES Act has expanded what you can buy with that money—now including over-the-counter drugs and health aids, something previously the purview of flexible spending accounts (FSAs) only.

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The fall surge

In November, AARP reported that in 12 of the states with surging COVID-19 numbers, cases among care home residents and staff have risen at least 40%. Care homes have taken precautions more seriously than almost anyone else but still face high rates.

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Necessity to make a plan

For seniors who contract even mild cases of COVID-19, logistics and care are more complicated. They may need to make new plans for home meal delivery and other services.

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Hospital complications

Older patients with COVID-19 are more likely to experience complications like blood clots and infections. These risks are elevated for all older people who are hospitalized and aren’t specific to COVID-19.

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Need to take care with older people

The CDC says risk for COVID-19 complications increases with each decade past 60, with the highest absolute risk among people over 85. For these people, it’s tantamount to take precautions and be as protected as possible.

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Stress and anxiety

Medicare reports that 46% of recipients said they’ve felt more stressed and anxious during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51% of women respondents and 39% of men.

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Different vaccine efficacy

Many of the vaccines in development use immune technology that may not work as well for senior populations. Pfizer, in particular, has said their vaccine does work just as well for seniors.

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Using HSAs for telehealth services

The 2020 CARES Act has expanded rules for health savings accounts (HSAs) to include coverage of telehealth services and other remote care. About 60% of Medicare recipients reported having access to telehealth.

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Half of care homes affected

AARP reports that over half the nation’s 15,000 care homes have at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 among their staff members. It’s logistically and financially difficult to send these workers home, creating challenges in their absence.

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Houses of worship offer resources

Seniors are more likely to belong to houses of worship. These groups may offer special services that can help support their members through the pandemic.

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Longer time on ventilators

AARP reports that seniors who are hospitalized with COVID-19 and end up on ventilators are on them for a longer time than any other group. They’re spending 2 to 3 weeks on ventilators because of COVID-19, compared with just a few days for even a severe cold.

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Different symptoms

Seniors can have slightly different symptoms than other groups, which can lead to mistreatment if caretakers aren’t prepared. For example, seniors have lower body temperatures overall than younger people, meaning their fever temperatures are lower—and should be taken very seriously.

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Feeling more isolated

37% of Medicare recipients reported feeling more socially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. That number represents 41% of female respondents and 31% of male respondents.

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Challenges for older Americans seeking new jobs

Older people laid off from the American workforce will have a harder time finding new jobs even after the pandemic recession has ended. That’s a combination of existing factors and the fact that millions of people will be seeking work at once.

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Care home residents at risk

Long-term care facilities, including those for seniors, have accounted for 40% of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 and complications. AARP further reports that these populations have had a confirmed total of at least 600,000 cases.

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Different immune response

Older people have shown a different immune response to COVID-19, which can affect recovery time, complications, and more. Researchers are searching for reasons why, but don’t understand this relationship well yet.

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Higher risk for lower oxygen

AARP says seniors begin to show health outcomes from low blood oxygen more quickly than younger people with the same oxygenation. Seniors who are hospitalized with COVID-19, or even those being monitored at home, should be checked frequently for blood oxygen changes.

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Social Security diminished

Because of the way Social Security benefits are calculated, people who turn 60 in 2020 could lose 9% of their recurring future benefits based on this year’s economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has depressed the economy to the tune of up to $4,000 a month for these benefits recipients.

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Vulnerable to superspreaders

A wedding in Maine earlier this year eventually killed 7 people who hadn’t even attended, two of them seniors who were otherwise very careful and protected. Seniors are more likely to have visitors for healthcare and other services, making them vulnerable to secondhand exposure.

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Older essential workers at risk

Older essential workers, whether in healthcare or at Starbucks, are more likely to have a serious case of COVID-19, even with roughly the same chance to catch the virus to begin with. That means more work missed, potential hospitalization, and other complications.

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401k values plummet

Many Americans with private sector careers have their retirement savings in 401k accounts. In just the first quarter of 2020, 401ks overall shed 19% of their worth. Older Americans are more likely to have to pull this money out before it has a chance to rebound.

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A surge in care homes, too

In the month ending in mid November, 600 U.S. care homes reported new cases of COVID-19 among their staffs. In addition, 200 homes reported new cases among their residents.

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Help from hospital social workers

Seniors who are hospitalized for COVID-19 but recover can ask for help from the hospital’s social workers to make sure they can safely transition back to their homes. This can especially help limit risk factors that could lead to a second hospitalization.

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Ventilators are less useful

Ventilator usage can be contraindicated in seniors because of existing risk factors and different immune response. The decision to put a senior patient on a ventilator should be considered differently than for younger patients.

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Likelier to be readmitted

About 11% of COVID-19 patients are readmitted to the hospital at least once. Seniors are overrepresented in this group and have longer stays.

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