COVID Has Been Harder On American Seniors Than Those In Any Other Wealthy Country

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
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As of Monday, August 2 of this year, 90% of U.S. residents age 65 or older have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to Kaiser Health News. Given that the vaccine has become so highly politicized, with conservatives more likely to oppose pandemic mitigation measures and older people being more likely to lean conservative, that number might come as a shock to some. Still, it’s heartening to see older folks trusting in science and taking care of themselves. Hopefully these folks are encouraging their kids and grandkids to go get vaccinated too.

Despite the promising percentage of seniors getting vaccinated in the U.S., it can’t exactly be said that U.S. seniors are doing well — at least not compared to other high-income countries.

Richest Country In The World?

The Commonwealth Fund has released results from its 2021 International Health Policy Survey of Older Adults. Researchers surveyed more than 18,000 adults aged 65 and older in 11 high-income countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the U.S.

The survey found that in a range of metrics, from economic security to access to healthcare and support services, U.S. senior citizens are faring worse than their counterparts from other wealthy countries. In the richest country in the world, you’d expect Grandma and Grandpa to have ample access to everything they need.

Not always the case, unfortunately.

Economic Stress On American Seniors


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Compared to their peers in the other countries mentioned, older adults in the U.S. have suffered worse economically than any other country. They’ve lost more jobs and tapped into more of their savings to get by. Study results showed that the percentage of older adults in the U.S. reporting that they “used up all or most of their savings or that they lost their job or source of income because of the pandemic” was four to six times greater than in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, or Sweden.

In the U.S., 19% of older adults reported they had used up “all or most” of their savings, while only 3% of older adults in Germany reported doing the same. The countries with the next highest number of adults saying they’d used all or most of their savings was Canada, with 15%, and Australia, with 14%. Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden all had under 5% of older adults saying they’d had to use all or most of their savings.

When asked about material hardship — whether they’re “always or usually stressed” about being able to afford basic daily necessities and comforts like healthy meals, mortgage, and monthly bills, U.S. older adults again beat out every other country.

Unsurprisingly, when U.S. numbers were broken down by race, Latino/Hispanic and Black older adults suffered wildly disproportionate economic hardship due to the pandemic compared to white older adults — 39% of Latino/Hispanic older adults reported they’d had to use all or most of their savings, and 32% of Black older adults said the same. For white older adults, the number was 14% — same as Australia.

Healthcare For American Seniors Doesn’t Look Much Better

The health care of U.S. older adults has also been more negatively impacted compared to other high-income countries. For older adults with a chronic health condition, U.S. residents were more likely than other countries to have appointments canceled or postponed due to the pandemic.

To be fair, the U.S. has a much higher percentage of people suffering from chronic conditions, and therefore presumably more appointments that have the potential to be cancelled. 68% of older Americans surveyed said they had at least one chronic condition, while 42% reported they had three or more chronic conditions — around double the percent of most of the other countries surveyed.

This may be a reflection on our expensive-yet-inadequate U.S. healthcare system. Despite being the country with the highest per capita healthcare spending relative to the size of its economy, the U.S. generally has worse health outcomes for its citizens than other high-income countries. We have a lot of expensive technology and some good preventative care, but a physician shortage and lots of missed checkups (possibly due to the physician shortage).

None of that bodes well for American seniors in the time of Covid-19. In a country with the highest GDP and the highest healthcare spending per capita, we need to do better by our senior citizens.

How Can We Do Better?

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Recommendations from The Commonwealth Fund suggest we improve outcomes for older Americans by taking measures to ensure they have access to affordable, timely, consistent care. That’s a task for policymakers and the systems responsible for delivering care. Offering more telemedicine options is one way to make this happen efficiently and without requiring people to show up in crowded doctor’s offices.

The Commonwealth Fund also noted a “clear need” to continue to boost the economic security of older Americans and in particular to acknowledge and address the shameful gaps in economic security between white and non-white populations.

At the community level, younger and middle-aged Americans can do their part to mitigate the spread of the pandemic by using the usual measures — social distancing, masking up, and getting vaccinated. The less strain we put on our healthcare system to provide Covid-19-related care, the more of that system is freed up to accomplish non-Covid-related healthcare, not just for our senior citizens, but for all of us.

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