As we enter year four of COVID-19, life in America is a tale of two pandemics.
In noteworthy ways, the greatest health crisis of our time appears to be ending — mask-wearing has greatly dwindled, restaurants are booming, concert venues are again selling out as music makers return to the stage, and President Joe Biden announced that the federal emergency declarations will end on May 11.
Yet, with immunity waning and only 41 percent of older Americans protected with the updated booster, scary headlines have rebounded: A contagious new strain of COVID has emerged, and though overall hospitalizations are down, Americans 70 and up are admitted with COVID at a rate four times higher than that of the general population, and most fatalities are among people over 64. Nothing is normal about this new normal. From health care to travel and family time, we’ve sorted out what’s changing, and what’s not.
Health and well-being
With wisdom and know-how, older Americans adapted and got through it...
Though alcohol use and fitness have proved serious challenges.
Vaxxes have been critical. A near-universal share of older adults — an astounding 94 percent of those 65 and older — were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That’s a level health authorities hope to achieve for older adults getting the all-critical bivalent booster shot despite the lag. “The hesitancy and partisanship around vaccines that more broadly affected the pandemic response has not shown up among older Americans, and that really paid off,” says Ashish Jha, M.D., the White House COVID-19 response coordinator.
Older Americans have fared better psychologically. The vast majority of the 1.1 million lives lost to the virus in the U.S. have been over 65, but even with that devastating toll, “older people overall had the experience, the resources and the resilience to ride out this storm better than middle-age and younger generations,” says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Coming out of COVID, Americans ages 16 to 24 rated their physical and mental health as poor — much worse than those over 65 did. And older adults these past few years were the least likely to report psychological stress, headaches and fatigue.
Telehealth and urgent care have surged. Medicare telehealth visits in 2020 increased to 52.7 million, from approximately 840,000 in 2019, and continue to number in the millions. When we do see a practitioner, it is often in a discreet corner of a pharmacy or superstore as Walgreens, CVS and Walmart pushed in to urgent care, health screenings and even minor wound and injury care. That’s not going away. Amazon rolled out a virtual medical clinic that treats common ailments such as allergies, hair loss and skin conditions. CVS spent $8 billion last fall on a network of doctors and clinicians who make house calls. “Their interest is to take over the home,” Eric Topol, M.D., a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in San Diego, told The New York Times.
However... fitness may suffer. After coronavirus shutdowns, online fitness increased, but 50 percent of gym members said they would not return to their gym. Nearly 1 in 5 adults over 50 reported a deterioration in the quality of sleep during COVID. Nearly 2 in 5 Americans 70 and up said they delayed medical services. “I’m seeing patients who are three and four years behind on colonoscopies and mammograms, and that’s led to delayed discoveries of — and more advanced — cancers,” says Jeannette Guerrasio, a Denver internist. Nearly half of those 65 and older who contracted COVID say they are less able to engage in physical activities such as walking and exercising.
Then there’s a troubling trendlet. Though older Americans as a whole weathered the pandemic better psychologically than younger generations, there have been pockets of despair.
Substance abuse among older adults has increased the past few years. We’re not talking about the occasional gummy with cannabidiol — though CBD use is way up among older folks. The percent of alcohol-related deaths among Americans over 65 reached record highs in 2020. Death from opioids among those 65-plus also trended up (though in terms of sheer numbers of substance abusers, younger Americans far outstrip their older counterparts). Older adults can be reluctant to receive treatment at facilities tailored to younger populations. As Guerrasio says, “I hope one lesson for older people coming out of COVID is to be more open to saying, ‘I need help.’ ”
Work and the economy
From the office to retail, life is beamed onto screens, big and small...
Although the supply chain crisis has slowed the marketplace.
Online shopping takes off but struggles to fulfill its promises. Months of quarantine recalibrated how Americans earn, shop, invest and save. In a blink, cash was gone, and swiping or typing credit card details became the coin of the realm — that’s fine if you’re not managing age-related dexterity or cognitive issues. Among those who never bought online before 2020, 40 percent were doing so within a month, and, for older Americans, it was everyday items we’d never depended on the internet for: toothpaste, tomato sauce, thumbtacks, lunch — and it all magically arrived, via contactless delivery, after we tracked it to our homes.
Work has moved toward home. “Going” to work? Not so much anymore. Before the pandemic, 95 percent of commercial real estate in U.S. cities was occupied. Now it’s below 50 percent, in what some call “the office apocalypse.” One-third of business travel is likely gone forever, predicts Jeffrey Cole of USC’s Center for the Digital Future. “Zoom is a lot easier and cheaper than getting on a red-eye to New Jersey,” he notes.