As the elderly, especially those in nursing homes, bear the brunt of deaths from COVID-19, new approaches and tools to keep them safe are emerging.
Why it matters: Seniors are much more susceptible to the novel coronavirus, and the conditions in many long-term care homes facilitate the spread of COVID-19. Independent of the current pandemic, America and much of the world is aging rapidly and is in need of technologies to care for them.
Driving the news: More than 50,000 people in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, according to a tally released on June 16 by the Wall Street Journal. That's nearly half of total U.S. deaths from the virus.
- The death toll in U.S. nursing homes since the beginning of the epidemic has been nothing short of horrific: 6% of New York state's more than 100,000 nursing home residents have died of COVID-19, while Michigan lost 5% and New Jersey 12%.
"Nursing-home residents aren't getting half of our resources or half of our attention, yet they account for roughly half the deaths. We don't value their lives as much as other people's."— David Grabowski, health care policy professor at Harvard University
What's happening: There are steps that can be taken to protect seniors from both COVID-19 and the effects of the lockdown.
- Regularly testing workers would be one of the most effective ways to stem outbreaks among the elderly, but testing all 3 million of the country's nursing home workers and residents just once would cost $672 million.
- Harvard's Grabowski, who advises Congress about Medicare, has proposed a federal effort to regularly test nursing home staff and residents and procure greater supplies of personal protective equipment.
- In an op-ed for USA Today, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist and Martha K. Presley of Vanderbilt University Medical Center suggest that pooling tests could reduce costs by as much as 80%.
Technology could play an increasingly important role as well.
- CarePredict sells a wearable device called Tempo that tracks indoor location, pulse rate and more. Originally targeted as a way for caregivers and family members to monitor the physical and mental health of seniors, Tempo is now being used to tackle COVID-19, including contact tracing.
- "If an individual tests positive for COVID-19, [caregivers] can go into the software, select the individual and rewind the last 14 days to see who they made contact with and the duration and length of that contact," says Jerry Wilmink, CarePredict's chief business officer.
As if the effect of the virus itself isn't enough, the lockdown policies instituted to stem the spread have had a major effect on the elderly, who already suffer disproportionately from loneliness and depression.
- The loneliness and isolation, says York University psychology professor Gordon Flett, "is seen as a cause of mortality, not just a correlation."
The big picture: According to the UN, for the first time in history, people aged 65 or above now outnumber children under the age of 5 globally, and by 2050, the number of people 80 or above will triple to 426 million. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of an aging society and the need for new innovations to protect them.
The bottom line: COVID-19 has been a tragedy for the elderly, but if we're smart, it will be an opportunity to rethink how we approach a future — growing old — that nearly all of us will share.