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The impact of COVID-19 on the elderly has been catastrophic. In the early days of the pandemic, it was found that the elderly population is more susceptible to the virus, especially for those with pre-existing medical conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, respiratory problems, diabetes, and other similar chronic illnesses.
According to the World Health Organization,1 the fatality rates for those over 80 years of age is five times the global average. In addition, over 95% of fatalities2 due to COVID-19 in Europe have been of people aged 60 years or older. In the United States, 80% of deaths were among adults 65 and older. In China, approximately 80% of deaths occurred among adults aged 60 years or older.
Here is a brief look at the impact of COVID-19 on the elderly and at some insurers’ initiatives in response to the effect of the pandemic on the elderly population segment.
Access to Services
The spread of the virus has forced many governments to implement lockdowns, which have created more hardship for the elderly and those who either don’t have access to or are not comfortable with using technology.
Many of the elderly are unable to access services, such as telemedicine or online shopping and banking, during this period of lockdowns and physical distancing. They have become reliant on younger family members, neighbors, or community volunteers, such as the U.K.’s National Health Service Volunteer responder scheme, for essential food and medicines.
In the U.S., a large health insurer has teamed up with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) to donate $5 million to address social isolation and food insecurity among seniors nationwide. The funding will be used to establish innovative programs to connect older adults to groceries and emergency food boxes. Another health insurer that regularly conducts a loneliness survey is now launching a pilot program to increase connectivity among its Medicare Advantage (MA) customers. The pilot program, which will initially reach 24,000 customers, aims to monitor their general health and well-being as well as their daily needs such as food and transportation.
Aunt Bertha is a social care network that has partnered with a large insurer to help connect individuals and families to free and reduced-cost social services in their communities. These services include COVID-19-specific assistance, including food delivery and help paying for bills.
Effect on Physical Health
Social isolation has also had a significant impact on the overall physical health of the elderly population. Some health insurers have responded by offering programs such as the SilverSneaker fitness classes, live work-out sessions to improve balance and coordination, virtual workshops on how Medicare works, and practical workshops such as “Skills and Drills for Fall Prevention.”
Insurers in the U.S. have launched a new fund, the COVID-19 Support Fund, which aims to raise £100 million. One of the key goals is to provide a longer-term program of support for people, including older people in isolation.
In addition to life and health insurers, other providers and networks offer assistance in dealing with social isolation and maintaining physical health. GetSetup is a platform for seniors to learn basic tech-based life skills. The platform provides free, live, online classes to help seniors with popular online tools important for those still living at home. It connects retired, re-skilled educators with other seniors for live, online lessons. Classes are offered in mobile banking, telehealth options, online grocery and prescription shopping delivery, preparing for Medicare enrollment, using LinkedIn, and finding online exercise classes.
Healthcare providers offer programs such as Silver&Fit, which offers more than 250 streaming, on-demand group exercise classes. The program also includes health coaching for social engagement, nutrition, weight control, exercise, sleep quality, and stress management, as well as access to the Silver&Fit mobile app.
Optum launched the Virtual Community Center wellness program to give older adults across the U.S. free access to its online exercise, nutrition, and mental health classes.
We have seen the emergence of telehealth during this pandemic. Many seniors, however, do not have access to the technology required to make an online appointment. Telehealth Access for Seniors, a pending nonprofit established by Yale University, was developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The group is collecting old iPads, iPhones, and tablets to give to senior patients so they can FaceTime or use telehealth apps to attend doctors’ appointments.
Some U.K. health insurers also provide access to telehealth services. These services give fast access to a General Practitioner (GP), prescription deliveries, follow-ups with the same GP, and pathways into secondary care. One provider, through its Smart Health App, offers unlimited 30-minute phone or video calls with a U.K.-registered GP. A virtual prescription issued by the GP can then be delivered same day or next day, with no delivery charge.
Other examples of available technologies include remote patient monitoring (RPM) platforms, tablets specially designed for seniors, and voice-assisted services such as Alexa. 100Plus is an RPM platform for doctors and patients. It offers three new RPM devices that enable seniors to stay in touch with their healthcare providers while remaining at home. The 100Plus Blood Pressure Cuff, Digital Weight Scale, and Blood Glucose Monitor are all free to Medicare patients. Livindi’s technology introduced LivindiSolo, which connects family members and caregivers with seniors for virtual visits, monitoring, and check-ins. LivindiPad is a tablet for seniors where users can simply click on a picture to make a video call. It includes a set of sensors that monitor the senior’s environment and recognizes behavioral changes. In addition, My Day for Seniors on Alexa now includes COVID-19 screenings in the form of daily questionnaires. The system can communicate a possible case of COVID-19 back to a designated caregiver or family member.
Mental Health and Well-being
Older people increasingly live alone in many countries. Research has shown lonely seniors may have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, depression, and stroke.
The current rules for sheltering in place and social distancing in many countries mean that the mental health and psychosocial support needs of many older persons are no longer being met. For the elderly who live in care facilities, the physical distancing measures have meant that they can no longer receive visits from their loved ones. This can negatively affect those seniors with cognitive decline or dementia and those who are highly care-dependent.3
The AARP Foundation, together with a large health insurer, provides seminars to boost morale and help seniors stay mentally active. Its Connect2Affect platform helps reduce social isolation and promote greater connection.
Free online videos are available on the Optum YouTube channel and are guided by experts. The content includes activities such as seated tai chi, qi gong, strength and balance, yoga, and brain and emotional activities.
The partnership of Humana, Uber Health, Papa, Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness, and the NASA-funded Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) has launched “Far from Alone,” a public health awareness campaign to address health-related social needs and promote understanding of loneliness and social isolation, issues that have become more critical during the pandemic.
A major U.K. bank has teamed up with We Are Digital, The Silver Line, and Mental Health UK to provide emotional support to the elderly and vulnerable. Approximately 2,000 tablet devices will be delivered free of charge to people over 70 isolated by COVID-19 to help keep them connected.
We Are Digital also has a dedicated phone line to help customers stay socially engaged and manage activities such as online banking. The Silver Line, a partner to Age UK, will continue to offer a 24/7 helpline and friendship services to those aged 55 and older who may be feeling lonely or isolated. The U.K.’s Bupa health insurance company recently introduced the Bupa Buddy service, through which those who are lonely or bored while staying home can chat with a Bupa Buddy or receive additional support if needed.
Impact on Financial Health
Many elderly people are having to manage their finances in different ways – over the phone and online – during the pandemic. This has led to an increase in relatives and friends applying for power of attorney to protect their loved ones and to people being nominated to collect pensions on behalf of those over 70.
There has also been an increase in will writing. The U.K. is considering relaxing the rules requiring two independent witnesses to validate a will. Under current social distancing measures, especially for those in isolation at home or in the hospital, it is almost impossible to adhere to the rules. Indeed, companies that offer online wills are reporting a jump in demand.
In the U.K., Hourglass, formerly known as Action on Elder Abuse, said the abuse and neglect of older people is expected to rise as the nation follows social distancing and self-isolation guidance. Cold callers are preying on the fears of the elderly by using the COVID-19 pandemic to sell pre-paid funeral and life insurance policies. The elderly are more susceptible than ever to picking up the telephone because of the loneliness caused by the pandemic. Services are available through the National Council on Aging, Age UK, and local Citizen Advice offices to assist the elderly. The Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) is encouraging people to pay extra attention to their financial well-being during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the U.S., a health insurer and Uno Health are partnering to help its members unlock financial assistance available through government programs, providing critical relief to the elderly.
During this pandemic a number of organizations and government agencies have developed new tools, services, and programs for the elderly. These efforts have highlighted the digital divide between the older population and everyone else, and they show that many older people have limited access to digital technologies and lack the necessary skills to use them. Some of these technologies will be here to stay, and it is important that insurers play a part in helping the elderly take full advantage of them so they can maintain their physical and mental health.
- Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on older persons.
Stay tuned for future releases of our quarterly newsletter to see where the next innovations will take us.