Last December, during a Christmas Eve celebration with my in-laws in California, I observed what I now realize was the future of COVID for older people. As everyone crowded around the bagna cauda, a hot dipping sauce shared like fondue, it was clear that we, as a family, had implicitly agreed that the pandemic was over. Our nonagenarian relatives were not taking any precautions, nor was anyone else taking precautions to protect them. Endive spear in hand, I squeezed myself in between my 94-year-old grandfather-in-law and his spry 99-year-old sister and dug into the dip.
We all knew that older people bore the brunt of COVID, but the concerns seemed like a relic from earlier in the pandemic. The brutal biology of this disease meant that they disproportionately have fallen sick, been hospitalized, and died. Americans over 65 make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, but they have accounted for three-quarters of all COVID deaths. As the death count among older people began to rise in 2020, “a lot of my patients were really concerned that they were being exposed without anyone really caring about them,” Sharon Brangman, a geriatrician at SUNY Upstate University Hospital, told me.
But even now, three years into the pandemic, older people are still in a precarious position. While many Americans can tune out COVID and easily fend off an infection when it strikes, older adults continue to face real threats from the illness in the minutiae of their daily life: grocery trips, family gatherings, birthday parties, coffee dates. That is true even with the protective power of several shots and the broader retreat of the virus. “There is substantial risk, even if you’ve gotten all the vaccines,” Bernard Black, a law professor at Northwestern University who studies health policy, told me. More than 300 people still die from COVID each day, and the overwhelming majority of them are older. People ages 65 and up are currently hospitalized at nearly 11 times the rate of adults under 50.
Compounding this sickness are all the ways that, COVID aside, this pandemic has changed life for older adults. Enduring severe isolation and ongoing caregiver shortages, they have been disproportionately harmed by the past few years. Not all of them have experienced the pandemic in the same way. Americans of retirement age, 65 and older, are a huge population encompassing a range of incomes, health statuses, living situations, and racial backgrounds. Nevertheless, by virtue of their age alone, they live with a new reality: one in which life has become more dangerous—and in many ways worse—than it was before COVID.
The pandemic was destined to come after older Americans. Their immune systems tend to be weaker, making it harder for them to fight off an infection, and they are more likely to have comorbidities, which further increases their risk of severe illness. The precarity that many of them already faced going into 2020—poverty, social isolation and loneliness, inadequate personal care—left them poorly equipped for the arrival of the novel coronavirus. More than 1 million people lived in nursing homes, many of which were densely packed and short on staff when COVID tore through them.
A major reason older people are still at risk is that vaccines can’t entirely compensate for their immune systems. A study recently published in the journal Vaccines showed that for vaccinated adults ages 60 and over, the risk of dying from COVID versus other natural causes jumped from 11 percent to 34 percent within a year of completing their primary shot series. A booster dose brings the risk back down, but other research shows that it wears off too. A booster is a basic precaution, but “not one that everyone is taking,” Black, a co-author of the study, told me. Booster uptake among older Americans for the reengineered “bivalent” shots is the highest of all age groups, but still, nearly 60 percent have not gotten one.
For every COVID death, many more older people develop serious illness. Risk increases with age, and people older than 70 “have a substantially higher rate of hospitalizations” than those ages 60 to 69, Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me. Unlike younger people, most of whom fully recover from a bout with COVID, a return to baseline health is less guaranteed for older adults. In one study, 32 percent of adults over 65 were diagnosed with symptoms that lasted well beyond their COVID infection. Persistent coughs, aches, and joint pain can linger long after serious illness, together with indirect impacts such as loss of muscle strength and flexibility, which can affect older people’s ability to be independent, Rivers said. Older COVID survivors may also have a higher risk of cognitive decline. In some cases, these ailments could be part of long COVID, which may be more prevalent in older people.
Certainly, some older adults are able to make a full recovery. Brangman said she has “old and frail” geriatric patients who bounced back after flu-like symptoms, and younger ones who still experience weakness and fatigue. Still, these are not promising odds. The antiviral Paxlovid was supposed to help blunt the wave of old people falling sick and ending up in the hospital—and it can reduce severe disease by 50 to 90 percent. But unfortunately, it is not widely used; as of July, just a third of Americans 80 or older took Paxlovid.
The reality is that as long as the virus continues to be prevalent, older Americans will face these potential outcomes every time they leave their home. That doesn’t mean they will barricade themselves indoors, or that they even should. Still, “every decision that we make now is weighing that balance between risk and socialization,” Brangman said.
Long before the pandemic, the threat of illness was already very real for older people. Where America has landed is hardly a new way of life but rather one that is simply more onerous. “One way to think about it is that this is a new risk that’s out there” alongside other natural causes of death, such as diabetes and heart failure, Black said. But it’s a risk older Americans can’t ignore, especially as the country has dropped all COVID precautions. Since Christmas Eve, I have felt uneasy about how readily I normalized putting so little effort into protecting my nonagenarian loved ones, despite knowing what might happen if they got sick. For older people, who must contend with the peril of attending similar gatherings, “there’s sort of no good choice,” Black said. “The world has changed.”
But this new post-pandemic reality also includes insidious effects on older people that aren’t directly related to COVID itself. Those who put off nonemergency visits to the doctor earlier in the pandemic, for example, risked worsening their existing health conditions. The first year of the pandemic plunged nearly everyone into isolation, but being alone created problems for older adults that still persist. Before the pandemic, the association between loneliness and higher mortality rates, increased cardiovascular risks, and dementia among older adults was already well established. Increased isolation during COVID amplified this association.
The consequences of isolation were especially profound for older adults with physical limitations, Naoko Muramatsu, a community-health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me. When caregivers or family members were unable to visit, people who required assistance for even the smallest tasks, such as fetching the mail and getting dressed, had no options. “If you don’t walk around and if you don’t do anything, we can expect that cognitive function will decline,” Muramatsu said; she has observed this firsthand in her research. One Chinese American woman, interviewed in a survey of older adults living alone with cognitive impairment during the pandemic, described the debilitating effect of sitting at home all day.“I am so useless now,” she told the interviewer. “I am confused so often. I forget things.”
Even older adults who have weathered the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic still face other challenges that COVID has exacerbated. Many have long relied on personal caregivers or the staff at nursing facilities. These workers, already scarce before the pandemic, are even more so now because many quit or were affected by COVID themselves. “Long-term care has been in a crisis situation for a long time, but it’s even worse now,” Muramatsu said, noting that many home care workers are older adults themselves. Nursing homes nationwide now have nearly 200,000 fewer employees compared with March 2020, which is especially concerning as the proportion of Americans over age 65 explodes.
Older people won’t have one single approach to contending with this sad reality. “Everybody is trying to figure out what is the best way to function, to try to have some level of everyday life and activity, but also keep your risk of getting sick as low as possible,” Brangman said. Some of her patients are still opting to be cautious, while others consider this moment their “only chance to see grandchildren or concerts or go to family gatherings.” Either way, older Americans will have to wrestle with these decisions without so many of their peers who have died from COVID.
Again, many of these people did not have it great before the pandemic, even if the rest of the country wasn’t paying attention. “We often don’t provide the basic social support that older people need,” Kenneth Covinsky, a clinician-researcher at the UCSF Division of Geriatrics, said. Rather, ageism, the willful ignorance or indifference to the needs of older people, is baked into American life. It is perhaps the main reason older adults were so badly affected by the pandemic in the first place, as illustrated by the delayed introduction of safety precautions in nursing homes and the blithe acceptance of COVID deaths among older adults. If Americans couldn’t bring themselves to care at any point over the past three years, will they ever?