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Health systems in the Americas are not adequately responding to the needs of older adults and must be adapted in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, say experts at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

For the International Day of Older Persons on October 1, the organisation is calling for comprehensive, person-centered, integrated care and primary health services that are responsive to older people´s needs. 

While everyone is at risk of contracting Covid-19, older persons are far more likely to experience severe disease following infection, with those over 80 years old dying at five times the average rate. A United Nations report “The Impact of COVID-19 on Older Persons” suggests that this may be due to underlying conditions, which affect 66 percent of those aged 70 and over.  

This is also the case in the Americas, where most Covid deaths occur in those aged 70 and over, followed by people between the ages of 60 to 69. 

While older persons receiving long-term care have been hardest hit, accounting for 40 to 80 percent of Covid-19 deaths worldwide, in the Americas where the care of older adults is more likely to take place in the home, physical distancing is a particular challenge.   

“The Covid-19 pandemic has really emphasised the needs and vulnerabilities that older persons have when it comes to their right to health,” said Carissa F Etienne, PAHO/WHO Director.

“Too often, we are not hearing their voices and perspectives when it comes to their care. Older people have the same right to care as anyone else. No lives are more valuable than others.” 

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, up to 50 percent of older populations in some low- and middle-income countries lacked access to some essential health services – an issue that the pandemic has only exacerbated.  

But guaranteeing that older adults have access to essential health services isn´t enough, noted Enrique Vega, head of the Healthy Life Course Unit at PAHO. Services must also be adapted to the specific needs of older people.  

“How each individual older person might be affected by Covid-19, or any other disease, depends on their overall physical and mental health, so care and treatment should always take this into consideration,” he added.

The year 2020 marks the start of the Decade of Healthy Aging, which highlights the need for governments, civil society, international agencies, the media and others to work together to improve the lives of older people, their families and their communities, and to tackle ageism and stigma.

“Healthy aging is about developing and maintaining functional abilities that enable well-being in old age,” said Vega. “Covid-19 has exposed not only the fragility of older adults, but also that of the systems and settings that support them.”  

It is estimated that by 2050, the number of people over 60 years of age globally and in the region of the Americas will double. In 2025, persons aged 60 and older will account for 18.6 percent of the total population of the region. 

Latin America and the Caribbean is the second fastest growing region in terms of numbers of people over the age of 60, behind Africa. However, increased life expectancy does not translate to quality of life. 

Brazil reported that 76 percent of Covid-19 related deaths during February to September 2020 were in adults aged 60 years and older. 

In Peru, people over the age of 70 years had the highest Covid-19 mortality rates during March to May 2020.

Estimates from Canada show that more than 80 percent of Covid-19 deaths have occurred in long-term-care facilities. 

Thoughts and views expressed in guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.

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