Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging COVID-19

Opinion: Ageism in COVID coverage shrouds full picture of older adult population

Written by Nancy Morrow-Howell, Natalie Galucia and Emma Swinford of the
Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health, Washington University in St. Louis

News coverage of the pandemic addresses everyone in later life as one monolithic group – “the elderly” – vulnerable, lonely, living in retirement facilities. Of course, attention to increased susceptibility, social isolation, and nursing homes is critical, and we know age is highly correlated with severe illness and death from COVID-19. Underlying health conditions and weaker immune systems are associated with age; and this puts older people at increased risk. Yet, older adults are a very diverse group of people; and this reality is not recognized in current conversations about the Coronavirus outbreak.

The group “older adults” spans over four decades of life (60s – 100s) and there is more diversity in this group than younger age groups. Most older people are fit and functional. Less than 5% of people over the age of 65 are in long-term care facilities. Older people are in the workforce, working at home and on the front lines of health care settings and essential businesses. Nationally, nearly a quarter of our workforce is over the age of 55 and over one third of family caregivers are over the age of 65. Older adults are also playing critical roles as grandparents, supportive neighbors, and volunteers.

The reality that older adults are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 has shrouded the experiences of millions of older adults who continue to engage in paid and unpaid work, support their families, and live fulfilling, engaged lives. We must recognize the contributions older adults make to society in order to resist ageist stereotyping.

As aging advocates, we would like to see this pandemic engender appreciation for the resilience of the older population, for the diversity of this population and for the inter-generational connections that are being strengthened.