On the World Day for the Eradication of Poverty, AGE warns of the increase in social isolation and loneliness of older persons in the COVID-19 crisis, which is aggravated by the socio-economic conditions in which they live. We also call for specific policies to support older jobseekers during the recovery, as increased poverty and social exclusion also affect older persons relying on precarious jobs to improve their income.
‘In the current context, much attention and effort is rightly given to supporting the unemployed, especially young people’, said AGE Secretary-General Maciej Kucharczyk. ‘However, many older persons are at risk of social isolation and loneliness, and the crisis hits older persons with low incomes, particularly women, also very hard.’
Many older persons with low incomes rely on social support or care services, which were reduced or disappeared entirely as a result of physical distancing measures. AGE calls on policymakers to support and foster the lifeline formed by initiatives to encourage social participation of persons of all ages.
The impact of physical distancing and social isolation
Physical distancing measures are mainly aimed to protect vulnerable persons with medical preconditions – including many older persons. Yet, they also require reducing contacts to families and friends, and access to support services such as care, food aid, recreational or educational activities, which all contribute to maintaining physical and mental activity and health. Older persons face an increased risk of social isolation and loneliness: in France, 720,000 older persons had no contact with their family during the first-wave confinement in Spring; 32 % of older persons felt lonely almost every day. Still, personal care, volunteering and recreational activities are often seen as optional services that local authorities have the choice to support or not. The pandemic should be an occasion to recognize them as vital and necessary to support participation in older age. There are plenty of examples on how to combat social isolation and loneliness, these need to be upscaled.
The digitalization of public and private services and communications has been reinforced since the outbreak of the pandemic – easing access to these services during lock-downs and physical distancing. However, digitalisation risks disenfranchising even further those who were already digitally excluded. Digital initiatives on all levels – from EU to local – should support connectivity and access to equipment, and improve the digital skills of everyone, including the most excluded. At the same time, offline access to services must be maintained. Even if offline access to services are available, they tend to be much more expensive than when purchased online, or when online tools can be used to find the best price: this means that life becomes more expensive for the digitally excluded.
Promising practices exist to mitigate the impact of physical distancing:
- German AGE member BAGSO called for building structures to support volunteering and participation, also during crises and calls for a ‘pact for digitalization in old age’.
- In France, a specialised radio for Alzheimer’s patients has been created for the confinement
- Certain care homes have opened up to the communities in which they are embedded – breaking up a barrier between residents and the rest of society. Policies should channel more support to initiatives like these.
- Several helplines have been established to help persons in distress during confinement (in Spain, Poland, an online chat in Austria)
As the pandemic is prolonged, it is of utmost importance to maintain these offers over time, even though confinement might not be as strict as it was during the Spring 2020.
New groups of older persons exposed to poverty and social exclusion
Fighting social isolation and loneliness does not mean that the needs of older persons at risk of poverty and social exclusion are not increasing during the crisis as well. Access to food banks has increased significantly during the pandemic, such as in France, Ireland or Italy. In particular, it is reported that informal carers, who also face a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion, had to rely heavily on food banks. Many of the new users of food banks during the pandemic were older persons, showing increased distress to get by among low-income groups of older persons. Some organisations providing meal delivery to persons in need for care and support at home stopped or reduced food delivery to older persons who fell sick. On the other hand, some municipalities introduced free food deliveries specifically for older persons who were discouraged to do their own shopping in a number of Member States.
As a result of the pandemic many citizens, sometimes out of a sense of duty not to overburden the health system, did not access medical care – doctors have been alerting about the significant drop of care requests unrelated to COVID-19. Furthermore, as non-urgent medical interventions have been halted or rescheduled, a disproportionate number of older persons is waiting for treatment. ‘Non-urgent’ does not mean that medical interventions are not important to maintain quality of life, mobility and further deterioration of a person’s health. Therefore, the EU and member States must do their utmost to reduce waiting periods for all kinds of medical interventions and to encourage citizens not to delay seeking medical help if needed.
Informal carers, a majority of which are women, have had to step in to provide care during current crisis as formal care services were reduced or halted. This means a heightened risk of overburdening, dropping out of the labour market and social isolation of carers. Several MEPs have recently called for a European Strategy to support carers. Now would be the time to develop such a strategy.
Unemployment affects older persons as well
The COVID-19 crisis had a severe impact on employment, including on employment of older persons. This particularly hit low-income pensioners: in 2019, the German labour administration reported that more than 1 million persons over 65 were in ‘Minijobs’, indicating they needed these jobs to get by with low pension incomes. These are jobs that are often in the service sector and not protected against dismissal, unemployment or sickness: they are most likely to disappear during the economic downturn. Two-thirds of minijobs are held by women.
Likewise, it is unclear how the wave of unemployment has affected older workers for the moment, but already in 2019, 2 in 5 persons between 55 and64 years were not working – here also, a disproportionate share of women. As the probability to find new employment strongly decreases after 55 years, a new group of older persons is at risk of becoming long-term unemployed, drop out of the labour market and be excluded from the labour market during the last, crucial, years before statutory retirement ages. While it is of utmost importance to fight soaring youth unemployment, specific policies should also support older jobseekers during the recovery.
For more information, please contact Philippe Seidel, firstname.lastname@example.org