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Among Older Adults, COVID-19 Has Highlighted Vulnerabilities — But Also Some Opportunities

Nancy Morrow-Howell is the director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging and a professor at Washington University.
Washington University

Even the quickest scan of statistics related to the coronavirus pandemic makes it painfully obvious the disease has hit some communities and segments of the population much harder than others. And to an expert on aging and social policy such as Washington University’s Nancy Morrow-Howell, those troubling realities come as no surprise.

But as the crisis shines fresh light on longstanding disparities on a multitude of fronts, along with the everyday impacts of systemic racism and ageism, Morrow-Howell also has some hope for real improvement — particularly when it comes to a deeper understanding of older adults as the diverse individuals that they are.

“The challenges we are facing can be expected, and in fact, none of them are new,” Morrow-Howell stated in a recent Wash U release about her recent paper on the topic. “Our state and regional agencies on aging, private and non-profit agencies, advocacy organizations and universities have been grappling with these issues in one form or another for years.

“But now, it seems our efforts to improve policies and programs for longer, healthier lives might be more productive as we communicate to consumers, public officials and everyday citizens who may be more aware of what isn’t working, what is at stake and what might be improved.” 

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Morrow-Howell, who is the director of Wash U’s Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging and a 68-year-old herself, joined the show. She talked with host Sarah Fenske about both the challenges and opportunities she foresees in the months and years ahead.

Employment is one of the areas where Morrow-Howell sees the potential for disadvantages among older adults post-pandemic. She noted that people over 55 comprise about a quarter of the workforce.

“When we start recovering and people are reentering jobs,” she said, “we know that older workers have a harder time getting back in — age discrimination operates quite a bit. … People have [also] lost income and retirement savings, so there’s going to be a need for us to work longer.”

Morrow-Howell added that the 2008 recession suggested that although older workers tend to fare “pretty well [in] not being the first to go” given experience and connections, if they do get laid off, they struggle to find a new job.

“And some people will say, ‘Well then, I guess I’m going to retire early,’ because they just can’t get a new job,” she explained. “And we know that when employers are faced with a lot of applications and a lot of hiring demand, they can just fall back on ageist assumptions. There always has been ageism in terms of hiring decisions, but in these kind of recovery periods, it’s even worse.”

The professor touched on a number of other areas as well, and several older adults reached out to the talk show team to share their latest frustrations and concerns during the conversation.

"We are used to seeing [our grandchildren] after school every day, going to watch athletic events on weekends, and it's very difficult without that."

Madeline Franklin is the executive director of STL Village, an organization devoted to helping older adults stay in their homes [as opposed to ending up in a facility] and stay connected and active. She said over email that while members of the STL Village miss their usual social gatherings, they’ve been doing quite a bit over Zoom and such.

“Some of our members have expressed anxiety around issues of safety and wellness,” Franklin added, also noting that she and her associates are “certainly concerned with what happens now as the state and local government are reopening and what activities they can safely participate in and what activities that they should refrain from participating in.”

Ken, another listener, wrote that the aspect of pandemic life he’s most frustrated with is that many people in the region are “failing to practice social distancing, wear masks or do anything else to protect themselves and the people around them.” He added that he has a chronic medical condition and only ventures out when absolutely necessary, but “when I go, I'm always shocked and stressed out by the 20% to 80% of fellow shoppers and employees who either don't know or don't care that we're in the middle of a terrible pandemic.”

Sunset Hills resident Leatrice Polityka called to say the hardest part for her and her husband has been not getting to see their grandkids.

“We are used to seeing them after school every day, going to watch athletic events on weekends, and it’s very difficult without that,” she said.

Morrow-Howell added that she’s felt that, too.

“This has been a very real concern, and for me as well — I’m a grandma,” she said. “It is so frustrating to not be able to do what we usually do, and help. I can’t help my daughter with her kids, and she could use that. So it’s a very frustrating thing, and we’re all doing our FaceTime and our Zoom games, seeing people from the driveway as much as we can.”

The discussion eventually turned to some opportunities the pandemic may present going forward, including a growing sense of solidarity for older Americans among younger generations as well as learning new technologies.

Morrow-Howell said she also sees time itself as a positive right now for many people and especially older adults now, prompting reflection on how to use that time going forward in more purposeful ways.

“In a way, we’re all practicing for retirement right now if we don’t know what to do with our time and how to have really good self-care habits. So I think that’s really being called to the spotlight right now so we can learn some things about how to live when we have more time on our hands to do the things we should be doing.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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