For the past year, our country has been mired in not one deep crisis but three: a pandemic, an economic meltdown and one of the most fraught political transitions in our history. Interwoven in all three have been challenging issues of racial disparity and fairness. Dealing with all of this has dominated much of our energy, attention and, for many Americans, even our emotions.
But spring is nearly here, and we are, by and large, moving past the worst moments as a nation — which makes it a good time to take a deep breath and assess the changes that have occurred. While no one would be displeased if we could magically erase this whole pandemic experience, it's been the crucible of our lives for a year, and we have much to learn from it — and even much to gain.
AARP asked dozens of experts to go beyond the headlines and to share the deeper lessons of the past year that have had a particular impact on older Americans. More importantly, we asked them to share how we can use these learnings to make life better for us as we recover and move forward. Here is what they told us.
"The indelible image of the older person living alone and having to struggle — we need to change that. You're going to see more older people home-sharing within families and cohousing across communities to avoid future situations of tragedy."
—Marc Freedman, CEO and president of Encore.org and author of How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations
Norman Rockwell would have needed miles of canvas to portray the American family this past year. You can imagine the titles: The Family That Zooms Together. Generations Under One Roof. Grandkids Outside My Window. The Shared Office. “Beneath the warts and complexities of all that went wrong, we rediscovered the interdependence of generations and how much we need each other,” Freedman says. Among the lessons:
Adult kids are OK. A Pew Research Center survey last summer found that 52 percent of the American population between ages 18 and 29 were living with parents, a figure unmatched since the Great Depression. From February to July 2020, 2.6 million young adults moved back with one or both parents. That's a lot of shared Netflix accounts. It's also a culture shift, says Karen Fingerman, director of the Texas Aging & Longevity Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “After the family dinners together, grandparents filling in for childcare, and the wise economic sense, it's going to be acceptable for adult family members to co-reside,” Fingerman says. “At least for a while.”
What We've Learned From the Pandemic
• Lesson 1: Family Matters
• Lesson 2: Medical Breakthroughs
• Lesson 3: Self-Care Matters
• Lesson 4: Be Financially Prepared
• Lesson 5: Age Is Just a Number
• Lesson 6: Getting Online for Good
• Lesson 7: Working Anywhere
• Lesson 8: Restoring Trust
• Lesson 9: Gathering Carefully
• Lesson 10: Isolation's Health Toll
• Lesson 11: Getting Outside
• Lesson 12: Wealth Disparities’ Toll
• Lesson 13: Preparing for the Future
• Lesson 14: Tapping Telemedicine
• Lesson 15: Cities Are Changing
Spouses and partners are critical to well-being. “The ones who've done exceptionally well are couples in long-term relationships who felt renewed intimacy and reconnection to each other,” says social psychologist Richard Slatcher, who runs the Close Relationships Laboratory at the University of Georgia.
Difficult caregiving can morph into good-for-all home-sharing. To get older Americans out of nursing homes and into a loved one's home — a priority that has gained in importance and urgency due to the pandemic — will take more than just a willing child or grandchild. New resources could help, like expanding Medicaid programs to pay family caregivers, such as an adult child, or initiatives like the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, a Medicare-backed benefit currently helping 50,000 “community dwelling” seniors with medical services, home care and transportation.
"A positive piece this year has been the pause to reflect on how we can help people stay in their homes as they age, which is what everyone wants,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP's chief advocacy and engagement officer. “If you're taking care of a parent, grandparent, aging partner or yourself, you see more than ever the need for community and government support, of having technology to communicate with your doctor and of getting paid leave for family caregivers. The pandemic has forced us to think about all these things, and that's very positive.”
Family may be the best medicine of all. “Now we know if you can't hug your 18-month-old granddaughter in person, you can read to her on FaceTime,” says Jane Isay, author of several books about family relationships. “You can send your adult kids snail mail. You can share your life's wisdom even from a distance. These coping skills may be the greatest gifts of COVID” — to an older generation that deeply and rightly fears isolation.
"One of the biggest lessons we've learned from COVID is that the scientific community working together can do some pretty amazing things."
—John Cooke, M.D., medical director of the RNA Therapeutics Program at Houston Methodist Hospital's DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center
In the past it's taken four to 20 years to create conventional vaccines. For the new messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, it was a record-setting 11 months. The process may have changed forever the way drugs are developed.
"Breakthroughs” come after years of research. Supporting the development of the COVID-19 vaccines was more than a decade of research into mRNA vaccines, which teach human cells how to make a protein that triggers a specific immune response. The research had already overcome many challenging hurdles, such as making sure that mRNA wouldn't provoke inflammation in the body, says Lynne E. Maquat, director of the University of Rochester's Center for RNA Biology: From Genome to Therapeutics.
Vaccines may one day treat heart disease and more. In the near future, mRNA technology could lead to better flu vaccines that could be updated quickly as flu viruses mutate with the season, Maquat says, or the development of a “universal” flu shot that might be effective for several years. Drug developers are looking at vaccines for rabies, Zika virus and HIV. “I expect to see the approval of more mRNA-based vaccines in the next several years,” says mRNA researcher Norbert Pardi, a research assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
"We could use mRNA for diseases and conditions that can't be treated with drugs,” Cooke explains.
It may also target our biggest killers. Future mRNA therapies could help regenerate muscle in failing hearts and target the unique genetics of individual cancers with personalized cancer vaccines. “Every case of cancer is unique, with its own genetics,” Cooke says. “Doctors will be able to sequence your tumor and use it to make a vaccine that awakens your immune system to fight it.” Such mRNA vaccines will also prepare us for future pandemics, Maquat says.
In the meantime, use the vaccines we have available. Don't skip recommended conventional vaccines now available to older adults for the flu, pneumonia, shingles and more, Pardi says. The flu vaccine alone, which 1 in 3 older adults skipped in the winter 2019 season, saves up to tens of thousands of lives a year and lowers your risk for hospitalization with the flu by 28 percent and for needing a ventilator to breathe by 46 percent.
"Not only does self-care have positive outcomes for you, but it also sets an example to younger generations as something to establish and maintain for your entire life."
—Richelle Concepcion, clinical psychologist and president of the Asian American Psychological Association
As the virus upended life last spring, America became hibernation nation. Canned, dry and instant soup sales have risen 37 percent since last April. Premium chocolate sales grew by 21 percent in the first six months of the pandemic. The athleisure market that includes sweatpants and yoga wear saw its 2020 U.S. revenue push past an estimated $105 billion.
With 7 in 10 American workers doing their jobs from home, “COVID turned the focus, for all ages, on the small, simple pleasures that soothe and give us meaning,” says Isabel Gillies, author of Cozy: The Art of Arranging Yourself in the World.
Why care about self-care? Pampering is vital to well-being — for yourself and for those around you. Activities that once felt indulgent became essential to our health and equilibrium, and that self-care mindset is likely to endure. Whether it is permission to take long bubble baths, tinkering in the backyard “she shed,” enjoying herbal tea or seeing noon come while still in your robe, “being good to yourself offers a necessary reprieve from whatever horrors threaten us from out there,” Gillies says. Being good to yourself is good for others, too. A recent European survey found that 77 percent of British respondents 75 and younger consider it important to take their health into their own hands in order not to burden the health care system.
Nostalgia TV, daytime PJs. It's OK to use comfort as a crutch. Comfort will help us ease back to life. Some companies are already hawking pajamas you can wear in public. Old-fashioned drive-ins and virtual cast reunions for shows like Taxi, Seinfeld and Happy Days will likely continue as long as the craving is there. (More than half the consumers in a 2020 survey reported finding comfort in revisiting TV and music from their childhood.) Even the iconic “Got Milk?” ads are back, after dairy sales started to show some big upticks.
So, cut yourself some slack. Learn a new skill; adopt a pet; limit your news diet; ask for help if you need it. You've lived long enough to see the value of prioritizing number one. “Not only does self-care have positive outcomes for you,” Concepcion says, “but it also sets an example to younger generations as something to establish and maintain for your entire life."
"The need to augment our retirement savings system to help people put away emergency savings is crucial."
—J. Mark Iwry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former senior adviser to the U.S. secretary of the Treasury
Before the pandemic, nearly 4 in 10 households did not have the cash on hand to cover an unexpected $400 expense, according to a Federal Reserve report. Then the economic downturn hit. By last October, 52 percent of workers were reporting reduced hours, lower pay, a layoff or other hits to their employment situation. A third had taken a loan or early withdrawal from a retirement plan, or intended to. “Alarm bells were already ringing, but many workers were caught off guard without emergency savings,” says Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of the Transamerica Institute. “The pandemic has laid bare so many weaknesses in our safety net."
Companies can help. One solution could be a workplace innovation that's just beginning to catch on: an employee-sponsored rainy-day savings account funded with payroll deductions. By creating a dedicated pot of savings, the thinking goes, workers are less likely to tap retirement accounts in an emergency. “It's much better from a behavioral standpoint to separate short-term savings from long-term savings,” Iwry says. (AARP has been working to make these accounts easier to create and use and is already offering them to its employees.)
Funding that emergency savings account with automatic payroll deductions is a key to the program's success. “Sometimes you think you don't have the money to save, but if a little is put away for you each pay period, you don't feel the pinch,” Iwry notes.
We're off to a good start. Thanks to quarantines and forced frugality, Americans’ savings rate — the average percentage of people's income left over after taxes and personal spending — skyrocketed last spring, peaking at an unprecedented 33.7 percent. On the decline since then, most recently at 13.7 percent, it's still above the single-digit rates characterizing much of the past 35 years. Where it will ultimately settle is unclear; currently, it's in league with high-saving countries Mexico and Sweden. The real model of thriftiness: China, where, according to the latest available figures, the household savings rate averaged at least 30 percent for 14 years straight.
"This isn't just about the pandemic. Your health is directly related to lifestyle — nutrition, physical activity, a healthy weight and restorative sleep."
—Jacob Mirsky, M.D., primary care physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital Revere HealthCare Center and an instructor at Harvard Medical School
Just a few months ago, researchers at Scotland's University of Glasgow asked a big question: If you're healthy, how much does older age matter for risk of death from COVID? The health records of 470,034 women and men revealed some intriguing answers.
Age accounted for a higher risk, but comorbidities (essentially, having two or more health issues simultaneously) mattered much more. Specifically, risk for a fatal infection was four times higher for healthy people 75 and older than for all participants younger than 65. But if you compared all those 75 and older — including those with chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, obesity or lung problems — that shoved the grim odds up thirteenfold.