Beth Dugan on COVID-19 in Aging Populations: “Older People are Part of the Solution”

This conversation with Gerontology associate professor Elizabeth Dugan was conducted by the McCormack Graduate School and  first appeared on the UMass Boston News web page.

Q: Can we start by talking a bit about the aging population in Massachusetts and how it’s similar or different from other places facing the COVID-19 crisis?

Beth Dugan:  I would say overall, we have more positives to work with. Here in Massachusetts, we have more than a million people who are 65 and older, so we have more older people than other states. And one thing that’s interesting to think about is that longevity is a new experience in terms of human development. We’re about the first or second generation where most people could expect to live to old age.

Among the [2019] Governor’s Council’s efforts to address aging issues in Massachusetts, one of the things that we aspire to do is to help position the Commonwealth to be “the Silicon Valley of aging.” We have concentrations of health care, education, and technology, and those are all areas that will be potentially important in terms of longevity and the economy going forward.

In terms of where we’re worse than other states, the cost of living is high in Massachusetts. There’s a good indicator, the Elder Index, that was developed by professor Jan Mutchler, one of my colleagues. It reports cost of living for older people and considers housing and health care and transportation costs.

Q: Visitor restrictions in long-term care environments have been necessary to prevent the spread of COVID, but they exacerbate social isolation. Is this something you’re concerned about, and if so, how can we combat loneliness over the longer term that restrictions may be required?

BD: I am worried about what’s going on in long term care. This is a very highly transmissible virus. We did some early research [in March] trying to apply the Healthy Aging Data Report to see if we could identify nursing homes that would be hotspots for COVID that were, basically, the worst in the state for infection control measures. So, they had been cited for deficiencies for either hand-washing or other things related to infection control in congregate sites. We blasted that out to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs and the Department of Public Health to let them know that we’re seeing that older population is getting really hit [and to prioritize] these 20 nursing homes.

And we were wrong. Because this is so transmissible it doesn’t even matter if your facility is the best at infection control. It’s really concerning because you’ve got the most frail, vulnerable people are in these environments. They require a level of care that’s more than what the family members can do. I’m worried about loneliness, but I’m worried about people not dying from COVID first.

Q: Is there anything that comes to mind on the topic of COVID and older adults that no one is talking about but should be?

BD: I’d like to see people start thinking of older people as a potential part of the solution for COVID. When you live a long time, you have lots of ups and downs and setbacks and you learn how to cope and you, by virtue of surviving, build some resilience.

You know, there are a lot of kids stuck at home who can’t go to school, and there are lots of older people at home who would love to do something productive and contribute in some way. So, if we could figure out a way to match up an older person and the school kid who are willing to connect a couple of times a week to provide support and a fresh face for the kid and help the older person to be socially connected. A lot of the language that I’ve heard in this pandemic has been ageist – it’s basically the idea to wrap up older people in bubble wrap and keep them safe. You know that the people in nursing homes are such a small sliver of the older population. There’s a lot more that we could tap into and build that confidence through experience and resiliency.

Q: Once we’re past the “apex,” how do you see COVID impacting your and your colleagues’ research and other work around older adults in the months and years ahead?

BD: I think this is a game changer. This will be something that we think about and study for a long time now. And I think of science as sort of a relay race, and I’m one of the later runners.

Right now, we’ve got the basic science people trying to understand the virus and the epidemiologists who are trying to identify it’s spread.

For my own research, my team develops the Healthy Aging Data Reports. We create these reports for states and map out indicators of healthy aging at the local level. Right now, we’re working on Connecticut and Rhode Island and already planned to incorporate analysis on COVID [to be] released early 2021. That will give us more data to work with in terms of risk factors for fatalities and other bad outcomes in Massachusetts.

Q: What drew you to aging work?

BD: I had a really inspiring professor, I lived in Florida, and I was close to my grandparents. This professor put up a chart showing the expected aging of the population. And I thought, we’re going to need people that know something about this.

It’s an interesting field because you basically can study anything you want and call it aging, because when someone’s born, they’re aging. So, it’s gives you a lot of creative flexibility in terms of your science.

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