AGS Experts: Here’s What Older Adults Need for a “Reopened” U.S. That Can Serve Us All as We Age

New York (April 22, 2020)—As federal and state officials announce plans for reopening the U.S., the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) reiterates important priorities for reopening a country where more individuals than ever before are older adults.

Today’s U.S. is home to more than 50 million people 65-years-old and older, and tomorrow’s U.S. is building the momentum we need for millions more to contribute to our communities as we age. But today’s U.S. also has seen the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardize that progress in critical ways. At present, more than 30 percent of COVID-19 cases involve older people, who also account for 45 percent of hospitalizations, 53 percent of intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, and 80 percent of deaths.

As we look to reopen a country that ensures we remain as safe, healthy, independent, and engaged as possible as we age, AGS experts encourage federal, state, and local authorities to anchor plans in better health and care for us all:

  • A reopened U.S. will need widespread COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, as well as adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to support continued infection control and prevention. Making the U.S. safe means slowing the rate of infection with coronavirus to a level that our health systems can address. The AGS agrees with public health experts and scientists, who have recommended we dramatically scale up production and distribution of PPE and the availability of diagnostics that offer accurate, rapid results. This represents our best chance for identifying asymptomatic carriers as well as those with COVID-19 symptoms, reducing the number of people who need to be isolated and protecting all people, including those on the frontlines of caring for us. Current estimates of the U.S. need for testing range from 750,000 tests per week to more than 22 million per day, with widespread and repeated testing of the population.

    Contact tracing to target COVID-19 and track disease spread also will be vital to ensuring the health and safety of all people as we begin to loosen restrictions.
     
  • A reopened U.S. will need a reconstituted, reconfigured public health system. Public health and medical professionals have worked tirelessly on the frontlines of clinical practice, research, public policy, and public and professional education to combat COVID-19. The U.S. we reopen must honor their efforts—and the efforts of colleagues they have lost—by ensuring we have adequate public health infrastructure and expand public health workers’ roles in building a better tomorrow. According to some experts, that could require as many as 300,000 public health workers, who we can incentivize to pursue new careers if we invest in innovative programs to meet our country’s demands.

    In addition to expanding the public health workforce, more must be done to embed public health expertise across the fabric of American life, from health system improvements to community planning initiatives. Importantly, that expertise must embrace unique attention to age and shifting demographics for a U.S. that will continue to evolve—and improve—as we grow older.
     
  • A reopened U.S. will need greater attention to our health and caregiving needs as we age. More than ever before, older adults are contributing to our communities for longer and in more innovative ways. As we have learned from our initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the characteristics that make health and care unique as we age—from changes in biology and cognition to living with multiple chronic conditions—also put us at greater risk for harm from a pandemic.

    To meet future challenges, we will need more geriatrics experts but also more attention to geriatrics across all health professions and specialties, as well as for millions of formal and informal caregivers and direct care workers. Too few health workers receive adequate (if any) training in providing the highly skilled and complex services that make care different as we age. Even small increases in funding for the Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program (GWEP) and the Geriatrics Academic Career Awards (GACAs) can yield significant results, for example, as these are the only federal mechanisms for training the workforce we need as we age. A relatively small investment can help build better, faster, and more responsive care for those who need it most.
     
  • A reopened U.S. will need to serve, protect, and promote the well-being of all older adults, especially those living in communities where pandemics can hit the hardest. Among the many care settings important to us all as we age, more than 15,000 nursing homes in the U.S. provide care for the oldest and most chronically ill individuals, who are the most susceptible to viral pandemics and their complications. We have learned much about what to do—and what to avoid—as we’ve worked to combat COVID-19. A reopened U.S. will need to translate theory into practice to improve overall health, safety, and independence for older people who face unique health risks.

    At the same time, more must be done to empower health professionals who work to mitigate these risks. This includes enhanced education as well as mechanisms to protect workforce availability and capacity, opportunities to receive adequate recognition and reimbursement, and support for a care worker’s own health needs.
     
  • A reopened U.S. will need to revisit how we support healthy aging across the healthspan and lifespan for people at all ages. COVID-19 has changed the way many Americans think about health and care. It also has shed light on the importance of refining how we define “healthy aging” for a changing country. According to AGS experts, longer life is a priority for individuals when presented with choices. Our society can benefit from longer lives when individuals can continue making contributions to our communities and have opportunities to reach their greatest potential. But as we learn more about concrete ways to increase longevity, we need to work on ways to improve the quality of that time as well.

    Healthy aging requires a coordinated response not only to care but also to community priorities that can promote health, safety, and independence in age-friendly environments. Embracing biology, psychology, and socio-cultural considerations to optimize functional status—the medical term for ensuring we can make the most of our ability to remain mobile, active, and engaged even as our physical condition changes—also must remain a top “healthy-aging” priority.

To access AGS insights on reopening the U.S., as well as several other updates impacting older adults, the AGS has created information hubs for health professionals (AmericanGeriatrics.org/COVID19) and older adults (HealthInAging.org/COVID19).

About the American Geriatrics Society

Founded in 1942, the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) is a nationwide, not-for-profit society of geriatrics healthcare professionals that has—for more than 75 years—worked to improve the health, independence, and quality of life of older people. Our nearly 6,000 members include geriatricians, geriatric nurses, social workers, family practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, and internists. The Society provides leadership to healthcare professionals, policymakers, and the public by implementing and advocating for programs in patient care, research, professional and public education, and public policy. For more information, visit AmericanGeriatrics.org.