The responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in this community and around the world, rightly focused on protecting lives and preventing the spread of the virus. Unintended consequences however, have had an detrimental effect on older adults who are feeling the full impacts of economic, mental and physical effects of social isolation, challenges to our human rights, neglect and abuse in institutions and care facilities and the trauma of ageist attitudes and discriminations.
It is true, the global pandemic has severely impacted everyone; however, it has disproportionately affected older adults. We are at higher risk of contracting the disease, and more likely to develop severe infections and die from it. In Canada, close to 90% of COVID-!9 related deaths have occurred in people over the age of 60 and a staggering 80% of COVID-19 deaths were in individuals who lived or worked in long term care facilities or other types of care homes. Social isolation, the closing of many parts of society, and the fear and anxiety associated with the pandemic are pronounced for seniors. Many older citizens face severe challenges meeting their basic needs, such as shopping for food, medications, and obtaining needed health and community care. Some live in potentially dangerous environments where elder abuse is a potential factor. Older adults living in care facilities have been denied access for months to those who love them and any contact has been reduced to electronic communication and window waves.
“Much research has shown that human connection is a key determinant of health, and COVID-19 restrictions, while necessary, don’t really justify complete isolation from family, caregivers and friends. “
The challenges that older adults are experiencing are not new and few are unique to the virus. But COVID-19 intensifies and complicates everything and exacerbates the many challenges faced by older adults. The most distressing are the ageist stereotypes and discriminations that have become more visible in the last few months. Ageism is defined as a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old. It means that older people are devalued and their human rights compromised. Indeed, older adults have become the focus of this pandemic and have been isolated or paternalistically (though well-intentioned) protected without their own choices being respected.
“People above the age of 65 are often assumed to be a homogeneous group of “older people” or “Seniors” who are frail, lack independent decision-making capacity and need to be protected. The reality is strikingly different.”
There are three distinct generations between the ages of 60 and 100. Close to 90% live independently and make significant contributions to society. For example, the restrictions on older adults’ abilities to engage in meaningful volunteer activities is impacting community organizations at a time when many need increased hours of volunteerism to meet the challenges of the pandemic. In the same way that infants, children and youth have very distinct characteristics, so too do different older adult generations. One size does not fit all.
The Saskatoon Council on Aging (SCOA) tackles issues of importance to older adults and has continued to support older adult throughout the pandemic. We are uniquely positioned to communicate directly to citizens and public officials about what is at stake and what might be improved. SCOA can propose solutions that would improve policies and programs for an aging population and create a better quality of life for older citizens. We hope that the spotlight on the experiences of older people during this crisis will bring stronger commitment to working toward a more age-friendly community.
SCOA has adopted the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “Age-Friendly Cities” model as a critical way to support older adults to age positively in Saskatoon. In an age-friendly city, policies, services, settings and structures support and enable people to age actively by recognizing the wide range of capacities and resources among older people, anticipating and responding flexibly to aging-related needs and preferences, respecting their decisions and lifestyle choices, protecting those who are most vulnerable and promoting their inclusion in and contribution to all areas of community life.
SCOA’s multi-year Age-friendly Saskatoon Initiative revealed three key issues that hundreds of older adults in Saskatoon identified as critical in ensuring a good quality of life:
- Ageism is the greatest barrier older adults face.
- Older adults want to have input into policies and programs that affect them.
- The entire community has a role to play in creating an age-friendly environment.
As evaluations are carried out to examine COVID-19 pandemic responses how do we ensure that the voices of older adults are heard, that older persons are appropriately protected in the future, that we do not overlook how extremely diverse this age group is, how incredibly resilient we are, and the importance of the multiple roles we have in society, including as caregivers, employees, volunteers and community leaders? Here are some suggestions:
- Examine all policy decisions and community advisories through an age-friendly lens. SCOA has developed a tool just for this purpose. Policies need to be made with us not for us.
- Begin to create and foster living environments that truly support quality of life in all its aspects from access to good health care to high quality food, recreation and community building. Ensure that staffing and care standards in both community and long term care are elevated to the same level of importance in the health care system as hospital care.
- Begin right now, not after the pandemic is declared over, to develop a detailed provincial senior’s strategy that will re-examine and act upon the learnings of the pandemic on eliminating ageism, developing age-friendly communities and attending to mental health and self- determination. Create a full spectrum of options for those who want to live independently, or with home care support, assisted and intermediate care living alternatives, and those who require complex care. Ensure that older adults lead/participate in this work.
- Open a public discussion about ethical responses and protection of human rights during this pandemic crisis and how as a community we can foster an age-friendly community that supports positive aging for all citizens.
SCOA’s hope is that by articulating these challenges and opportunities, we might move more quickly to minimize the negative outcomes of COVID-19, maximize positive changes that might be possible and redouble our efforts to improve our aging society in ways that benefit people across the life span. We will emerge from this pandemic having paid a high price but more resilient and determined than ever. Now is the time to take bold action, create communities and caring environments that promote positive aging: something all of us deserve.
Past Presidents, Saskatoon Council on Aging