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COVID-19 Will Change How We Age, Where We Age And How We Pay For It10:37
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An elderly man rests on a bench in the Boston Public Garden. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An elderly man rests on a bench in the Boston Public Garden. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It's hard to come up with an aspect of life unchanged by the coronavirus.

Socializing is limited, work from home is encouraged, and traveling has been curtailed along with dining, working out at gyms and many other hobbies.

But most of that, presumably, will return to some kind of normal. But what about aging — how we age, where we age, the tools we need to age comfortably and how we pay for it?

In a recent article, Wall Street Journal reporter Anne Tergesen spoke to gerontologists, psychologists, tech experts, financial planners and end-of-life consultants who said they saw changes moving forward.

She found more people will be aging at home rather than a care facility, where 40% of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 have taken place.

Many experts who Tergesen talked to said nursing homes may be going out of business because of their shortcomings during the pandemic. In the event of a future public health crisis, she says there’s “not a lot of confidence” in institutionalized care.

But for those who consider nursing homes in care facilities invaluable, Tergesen says extra thought is being put into higher-quality nursing homes. More resources may become available, too, such as expanding a Medicaid and Medicare at-home service called Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) that provides medical services, adult day care and transportation.

Plus, a Medicaid program is experimenting with paying some family caregivers, she says.

If more funds are allocated for programs like these, she says more elderly people would have the resources to stay at home.

Interview Highlights

On downsizing group care homes

“One of the people I spoke to for this article is a guy named Bill Thomas, who has done a huge number of very interesting things in his life, one of which is to start something called the Green House Project. These are smaller, very homelike care facilities where up to 12 residents will live together with open floor plans and big dining rooms and fireplaces and open kitchens that everybody can work in together. They have done fairly well thus far through the pandemic in terms of their infection rates. So these are thought to be a better model for the future. Of course, it's more expensive.”

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On older people benefiting from the technology and medical booms that include, for example, telemedicine and wearable devices to track one’s health

“A lot of people I spoke to have said that being in lockdown has spurred a lot of entrepreneurs to think about what people will need in order to exist better at home as they age. Telemedicine is one of the examples that we've seen really take off.

“One of these companies, it's called Discover Life. I believe they have these virtual tours that they can take you on that are live streamed. And there's an actual tour guide there who can answer your questions and take you to different places. ... There's a company called Eldera that pairs older adults with children who need homework help. I know as a mom, I could have used that assistance. And one called Table Wisdom, which I thought was a great idea, where foreign-born students are paired with older people who are willing to kind of just sit and have a conversation with them so they can improve their English.”

On the pandemic’s biggest impact on finances

“So it's not a pretty picture. I mean, obviously, the stock market has been up and that's a good thing. But we've seen bond yields decline. And in general, that just makes it a lot harder for people, especially people in retirement, [who] tend to really hold a lot of bonds for very good reasons because they are a lot less volatile than stocks. They're more predictable. A lot of people, at least a generation ago, relied on bond yields to support themselves. They would live off the yield and leave the underlying principle. That's just not realistic anymore. So the idea is that just because you don't get a very good return on those investments, you need to probably save more. And there are people who are saying you might need to even save 20% more in order to live on what you project that you'll need.

“Then at the same time, Social Security is facing a potential shortfall in its trust fund looming in about a decade, and COVID-19 has actually impacted that by about a year or so. The trust fund is expected to become depleted a year earlier than we had thought before. So overall, it's not a very pretty picture for the financial situation of many retirees today. This may cause people to just work longer.”

On socializing and maintaining relationships

“I think there's a lot of pent up demand to socialize. As the doctors I've spoken to for this article point out, socializing is not just something that we enjoy. It's actually really good for our underlying health and potential longevity. So it's really important for us as social beings to be able to do that eventually. One of the silver linings of being in this sort of semi lockdown existence is that because [people’s] regular routines and their regular business has been sort of disrupted, people do have time to sit and think more consciously about the things that make them happy in life and the things that they really would like to do, not just as a way of kind of filling the time that you have, but as a way of maybe leaving a legacy. And I've talked to many people who say that people are much more deliberate in their planning of this type of thing.”

On end-of-life care planning

“As with many things, I think COVID has kind of sped up the focus on that. … There are multiple steps that people should go through, from filling out powers of attorney that enable somebody else to make medical and financial decisions if you cannot, to just really thinking about ‘what kind of end of life care do I want? Do I want doctors to be able to do everything possible to try to keep me alive? Or do I want to draw that line somewhere and say, beyond this point, I don't want medical care.' And it's very helpful to families because then when a family is actually in that situation, as so many have been during this pandemic, they can kind of default back to what the person's wishes were.”


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on December 3, 2020.

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