As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the risk of getting sick isn’t the only susceptibility seniors face. However, supporting professionals have the power to help.
Seniors and Isolation in the COVID-19 Pandemic
Isolation is a worryingly common experience among older adults. As people age, they become increasingly susceptible to the common factors that contribute to isolation and, as a consequence, loneliness. These factors include living alone, the loss of family or friends, declining health, and hearing loss, among others.
The presence of chronic health conditions is an especially noteworthy factor due to the cycle of mental health conditions like loneliness and depression contributing to poor physical health, which, in turn, increases feelings of loneliness and isolation even further. For this reason, seniors with chronic health conditions are at an even greater risk of isolation compared to other seniors. Naturally, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, this risk was only compounded.
It should come as no surprise that seniors are at significantly higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. This risk further extends to individuals who have specific chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, or an immunodeficiency. Because of this, some of the nation’s most vulnerable seniors have had to isolate themselves, whether willingly or due to nursing home restrictions, even more than usual in order to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. This, along with other pandemic-related factors, has led to a greater prevalence of some of the other risks, such as elder abuse, that seniors are already commonly susceptible to.
Older adults who report feeling lonely are more likely to be victims of any type of elder abuse, but particularly psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation and caregiver neglect. Additionally, older adults who experience loneliness and low levels of social support are much more likely to also report depression, which increases the risk of elder abuse even further.
While most persistently-isolated seniors can rely on at least some community members to watch for the signs of elder abuse, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced additional isolation from the natural “watchdogs” in their community. These are people that, by nature of their proximity or occupation, are around to look out for a senior in their day-to-day lives, such as helpful neighbors, physicians, pharmacists, church members, bank tellers, and senior center staff. Without these watchful eyes available to identify warning signs, seniors are at greater risk of financial exploitation and other forms of mistreatment.
Isolation during COVID-19 may also have implications on a senior’s physical health. Signs of injury, poor health, or even physical abuse such as bruises and extreme weight changes can easily go unnoticed. In the most serious cases, seniors can fall and face severe injury or even death when nobody is around to help them seek immediate medical assistance.
Additional Stressors for Seniors Due to the Coronavirus
Loneliness and isolation are not the only stressors brought on by the pandemic. For many seniors, especially those with medical conditions that put them at greater risk, concerns about their health and their risk have contributed to increased levels of anxiety.
An older adult may struggle with weighing their risk when making trips outside the home for necessities, including healthcare supplies and doctors visits. When a senior’s healthcare needs aren’t being met, even the most minor issue can grow to a more significant problem. While telemedicine is an option for most seniors, many struggle to understand how to use it or fail to know that it’s available at all due to age-related gaps in technological literacy, leading to poorer health outcomes.
Financial concerns are only adding fuel to this fire. In recent years, seniors have been participating in the workforce at record levels, both out of choice and necessity. However, during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers age 55 and older were 17 percent more likely to lose their jobs compared to younger employees, a difference that’s played a staggering toll on a population that’s already at a heightened vulnerability to poverty and financial instability. Even seniors who don’t work but instead rely on a loved one’s income can be affected if their family member has lost their job due to the pandemic.
No matter the cause, if a bill is unpaid, things can quickly spiral out of control, leading to costly and destructive consequences such as late fees, repossession, foreclosure, eviction, and more. On a similar note, if a senior cannot afford to see a doctor, an untreated health concern can quickly take a turn for the worse. Just the looming fear that these scenarios could happen is enough to spark lasting anxiety and depression.
The stress burden placed on relative caregivers can also contribute to an older adult’s mental health outcomes. Many of the people doing this unpaid work have jobs outside the home or are also raising young children. With the additional burden of financial stressors and keeping their elderly relative safe from the virus added to the mix, caregivers are under more emotional and financial stress than ever before, which can increase the likelihood of elder abuse.
How COVID-19 Scammers Target the Elderly
Another significant risk to seniors is an increased susceptibility to scams, and the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up new doors for scammers to try to take advantage of older adults’ fears, trustworthiness, and vulnerabilities.
When seniors are isolated, they do not have the sounding boards they usually rely on to determine the safety or legitimacy of an offer, encounter, or opportunity. They also have more time to read mail and browse the internet, both of which are common mediums used to target seniors. They may also be more reliant on others for emotional and financial support, safety, and reliable information which, exacerbated by feelings of uncertainty, lowers their guard.
Most of these scams draw from old tricks, but the pandemic is used to further coax their victims into compliance. Romance scammers, for example, may take advantage of a senior’s loneliness to lure them into a disingenuous online relationship and trick them into sending money. Then, when the senior asks to meet up in-person, the scammer may use COVID concerns as an excuse to decline the invitation, further dragging them along in their scam attempts.
Other scams may take advantage of a senior’s health concerns by selling bogus COVID cures or posing as CDC officials, while the notorious IRS scams are ever-present as people’s fears of financial instability have skyrocketed.
What We Can Do
As professionals who regularly work with seniors, it is critical that we combat the forces of isolation and loneliness in our communities.
Some ideas include:
- Creating “friendship” lines with volunteers and with isolating seniors.
- Continued outreach through APS caseworkers, virtual and in person.
- Volunteering to work with virtual visits.
- Supporting elder abuse initiatives to increase funding and support for elder abuse initiatives including MDTs.
- Supporting research and legislation to keep up with the latest scams and protect seniors from predatory scammers.
Seniors’ increased risk of COVID-19 complications has been the focal point of our risk-related discussions throughout the pandemic, and rightfully so. However, seniors face a disproportionate number of additional risks that have been little-discussed in the public sphere. The more awareness we bring to these issues, the more community and professional support will be offered, and the more likely our nation’s seniors will be able to bounce back from this crisis—and it’s up to each one of us to address it.