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The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on older persons‎

A new policy brief launched today by the Secretary-General highlights the particular risks COVID-19 presents to older persons. As has been widely reported, the fatality rate for older people is higher than for younger age groups and reaches five times the global average for those aged 80 and over. Beyond the threat to life, the pandemic is putting older people at greater risk of poverty, discrimination and isolation.

In his video address, Secretary-General António Guterres, stressed four points:

“First, no person, young or old, is expendable. Older people have the same rights to life and health as everyone else. Difficult decisions around life-saving medical care must respect the human rights and dignity of all. 

Second, while physical distancing is crucial, let’s not forget we are one community and we all belong to each other. We need improved social support and smarter efforts to reach older people through digital technology. That is vital to older people who may face great suffering and isolation under lockdowns and other restrictions.

Third, all social, economic and humanitarian responses must take the needs of older people fully into account, from universal health coverage to social protection, decent work and pensions. The majority of older people are women, who are more likely to enter this period of their lives in poverty and without access to healthcare. Policies must be targeted at meeting their needs. 

And fourth, let’s not treat older people as invisible or powerless. Many older people depend on an income and are fully engaged in work, in family life, in teaching and learning, and in looking after others. Their voices and leadership count.

To get through this pandemic together, we need a surge in global and national solidarity and the contributions of all members of society, including older people.”

The policy brief provides analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on older persons and recommendations to address these challenges.

(Figure 1 of SG Policy Brief: The impact of COVID-19 on older persons)

The brief identifies both immediate and longer-term policy and programmatic responses needed across four key priorities for action:

  1. Ensure that difficult health-care decisions affecting older people are guided by a commitment to dignity and the right to health.
  2. Strengthen social inclusion and solidarity during physical distancing.
  3. Fully integrate a focus on older persons into the socio-economic and humanitarian response to COVID-19.
  4. Expand participation by older persons, share good practices and harness knowledge and data.

The UNECE Working Group on Ageing provides an inter-governmental platform for policy dialogue and information sharing in the UNECE region. The group is currently preparing a new policy brief on older persons in emergency situations which will highlight member State responses to the implications of COVID-19.

A one-day policy seminar on Older persons in emergency situations: lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic on 18 November 2020 will give national focal points on ageing and other stakeholders the opportunity to discuss the challenges and policy responses developed and collectively reflect on the lessons learnt so far. The COVID-19 pandemic is anticipated to have long-lasting consequences for the region’s economies and societies as well as for ageing-related policies.

National and local governments, civil society organisations, businesses and citizens of all ages are working tirelessly to ensure the protection of health and lives and continued access to key services for those confined in their homes. While the pandemic highlights challenges for national health and care systems, with the situation of care homes in the current spotlight, the crisis also highlights the power and importance of inter-generational solidarity, civil society and neighbourhood support, as people look out for each other, providing both practical and psychological support to reduce anxiety, isolation and loneliness in times of physical distancing:

In the Belgian region of Flanders, older people associations and the Flemish Elderly Council have teamed up to reach out to older people who are not digitally connected. Thousands of older volunteers from these associations call people in advanced old age every week to find out how they are doing, reaching 100,000 older people through friendly calls since the initiative was implemented in March. In Slovakia, COVID-19 support lines for seniors, people with disabilities, children and youth offer practical advice and psychological help. In France, the organization Monalisa created an interactive map listing 380 voluntary initiatives for seniors. Additionally, grassroots outreach programs are developed with associations connecting isolated older persons with volunteers who communicate regularly with them. A helpline for older persons, run by the Red Cross in France, was launched in early April 2020. It receives around 5,000 phone calls per day. Furthermore, the postal services offer visits to people who are completely isolated.

Many municipalities have put in place emergency support measures for people at risk of COVID-19, including older persons over the age of 65 who have been recommended to stay at home. This includes assistance with the delivery of food and medications as well as waste disposal. Senior shopping hours have been implemented in several countries. In Slovakia, for example, the hours between 9 and 11 am are reserved for persons over the age of 65 to enable them to shop more safely.

In the Republic of Moldova, 300 women and men over the age of 65 received packages of hygienic products and essential food on the eve of the Easter holidays, as well as information materials on protection measures against COVID-19, as part of an action launched by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Moldova in partnership with the Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Protection. Older persons also receive emotional support from a team of 15 young volunteers from Youth Centers and the National Youth Council Network. HelpAge International in Moldova provided 500 masks, sanitizers and gloves to volunteers and older people to ensure their protection during home visits. Additionally, HelpAge has provided direct support to the government by buying 4,000 masks for the social workers that do home visits.

The situation of older persons in care homes is particularly challenging as isolating measures to protect them from infection have meant a suspension of visits from relatives, and cutback in human contact with other residents. In France, for example, several older people homes organize “corridor-games”, where residents play lotteries and quizzes by standing at their doorstep. Other activities include music broadcasting and "daily singing meetings". Some schools are twinned with older people’s homes, with children sending letters and drawings to isolated residents. 

Many international organizations, civil society associations and research networks have been developing dedicated resources drawing attention to the situation of older persons during the COVID-19 pandemic. To facilitate access to relevant information, UNECE has compiled a list of publications and resource pages which is continuously updated as situation develops.

Read more:

Secretary General’s Policy Brief: The impact of COVID-19 on older persons

UNECE resource list on COVID-19 and older persons