For more than five years, AARP has worked with city, county, and regional government managers, elected leaders, and urban planners on a journey toward communities that are more livable for people of every age. The driving force behind the movement is that by 2030, one in five Americans will be age 65 or older; in Florida, one in four. By 2035, Americans age 65 and older will outnumber children up to age 18. But just as gray comes in different shades, “seniors” don’t fit a single profile, with many older Americans continuing to work and maintain active lifestyles. So far, seven states and 462 communities across the nation—including 32 Florida cities and counties and the state of Florida—have joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, upending our shared focus on livable communities as it has so much else.
COVID-19 is forcing older Americans to confront new challenges, some of them unprecedented:
How to stay both healthy and connected: An AARP nationwide poll announced April 30 showed that more than nine out of 10 respondents were very or somewhat concerned about coronavirus, a finding that survey experts described as remarkably broad-based.
Seven in 10 worried that they or a close family member would get sick. As a result, six in 10 said they were very focused on following government guidelines for physical distancing and hygiene whenever they left their homes. In Florida, AARP members are telling us that their concern is driving them to stay at home and indoors–even though they also recognize that means they are cut off friends, family, and communities.
Older people are right to be concerned. While the coronavirus can cause serious illness or even death at any age, data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 81 percent of coronavirus deaths in the United States between February 1 and May 16 occurred among those age 65 and over. Put another way, 81 percent of the deaths are occurring among about 20 percent of the population.
Protecting elder-care facilities
Elder-care facilities have been especially hard hit by the virus, with about four in 10 of the Florida deaths caused by coronavirus occurring among residents or staff of nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and group homes. On May 20, Florida reported 44 coronavirus deaths: 30 of them—or 68 percent—started as infection of a resident or staffer of an elder-care facility—a group that represents less than 2 percent of the population.
The same AARP poll also showed virtual unanimity among older people about protecting the frailest among us–residents of nursing homes. Some 96 percent favor requiring elder-care facilities to provide video visitation for family members to connect with elders, while 99 percent favor making personal protective equipment available to frontline workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and other health-care providers.
AARP Florida is hearing similar concerns from our members, including agonized reports from some members who are seeing loved ones slip into physical, mental, and emotional decline because they are cut off from loved ones. No visitation has been allowed to Florida elder-care institutions since March 15.
Addressing health disparities
The pandemic also is disproportionately affecting people of color, especially among older Americans, who are also at greater risk for chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes. A Brown University study of CDC data found that older American Indians and African Americans were more likely than white Americans to present additional COVID-19 risk factors beyond age. In New York City, the city hardest hit by COVID-19, Hispanics are dying at higher rates than any other group. Nationwide, African Americans are being hit disproportionately hard by the virus. In New Mexico, Navajo Indians are 9 percent of the population but have suffered more than a third of fatalities.
Older Americans also are worried about the economic impact of coronavirus, with about three in 10 saying the virus already has damaged their finances. One in 10 report they are being required to go to work despite concerns about the spread of the virus.
Such concerns are driving widespread support for government action to address these concerns. Some 96 percent support extending additional unemployment benefits to those made jobless by the virus. About eight in 10 of those surveyed supported additional stimulus payments to ordinary Americans, including large majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
Focus on highest risk areas
While much remains to be done as this crisis evolves, the range of potential issues to be addressed is daunting. Across the nation, local governments are stepping up to help. Important changes are being made to policies on housing, transit, parks and green spaces, and community activities. These stand to directly impact many of our older residents, some of whom await the reopening of recreation facilities and gyms as much as younger generations. Among the areas of strongest focus for local governments are the following:
- Protect staff, visitors, and contractors to elder-care facilities through widespread testing, adequate supplies of protective gear, and virtual family visitation.
- Share advice on how to safetly resume workout activities. While staying active is key to supporting a healthy immune system, someone working out can project large amounts of respiratory droplets—a potential source of infection.
- Facilitate networks of neighborhood and community groups rallying to support those in need. AARP’s new Community Connections website offers a way for local mutual-aid groups to connect with those in their community who want to help, as well as those who need help. City and county managers and their staffs can help by alerting local groups to this new site and encouraging them to list their groups there. AARP will help by using its publications and online resources to alert its members to these efforts.
In later weeks, safely reopening our economy will require the leadership, cooperation, and support from all levels of government, industry, and nonprofit organizations. Local government managers can help by focusing the attention of elected leaders on this issue, pressing for comprehensive, quick-turn testing for frontline elder-care staff and ensuring adequate supplies of protecting equipment.
AARP stands ready to work with ICMA members and their governments on these and many other issues. Together, we can and will withstand this crisis.