“We must ensure that New York City’s growing population of 1.25 million adults ages 65 and older can access high-quality services, resources, and opportunities that accommodate their needs and preferences, celebrate their strengths and resilience, and empower them to live in the communities they helped build and continue to make meaningful contributions to.”
Last month, New Yorkers bid adieu to the city’s universal contact tracing program after almost two years of service. Trace’s closure represents just one of many signs that the COVID-19 pandemic has entered a new phase in the United States, amid increasing levels of immunity in the population, widespread vaccine and testing availability, and the development of new treatments.
Like Trace, Clio—an organization connecting older adults to essential community resources and volunteers for friendly phone calls on a weekly basis—launched in Spring 2020 to meet the urgent needs of New Yorkers living in the pandemic’s epicenter. At the significantly higher risk of severe illness and mortality from COVID, older adults sheltering in place in New York City found themselves severed from close ties with the communities and resources they had once enjoyed at senior centers, houses of worship, and doctors’ offices, on building stoops and sidewalk benches, and in high-rise hallways, neighborhood parks, and local supermarkets. In response, with seed funding from the Columbia School of Social Work, Clio’s three founders rapidly launched a new program pairing socially isolated older adults in Uptown Manhattan with volunteers assessing their basic needs and providing safe companionship in eight different languages.
Two years, 2,272 phone calls, 137 letters, and 64 care packages later, our 87 volunteers across the country have empowered 75 older adults in some of the New York City neighborhoods most heavily impacted by COVID to continue aging in place with dignity through an unprecedented public health emergency. As more and more in-person programming resumes during this new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we, like Trace, are closing our doors—and cautioning New Yorkers against future complacency.
Even an endemic disease, as COVID will likely become, can be disabling and sometimes deadly. At Clio, we saw how endemic ageism, or pervasive discrimination against older people due to negative and inaccurate stereotypes, infected the lives of participants as they navigated formidable barriers to accessing meals, groceries, support services, medical care, and vaccines within the ever-shifting parameters of pandemic life.
Many Clio participants found new phone lines and online portals difficult or impossible to use, voicing frustration over being constantly redirected, given different information, or just simply overlooked by systems designed without their unique needs and preferences in mind. Some expressed interest in learning and using Zoom to access virtual programming and connect with friends, but lacked access to devices with cameras and internet connectivity, like many older adults with limited financial means. One Clio participant, who postponed visiting her primary care doctor’s office during the height of the pandemic, told her volunteer she had waited months to seek relief for her chronic pain—only to have the physician dismiss her pain as a “natural part of the aging process.” A participant who has difficulty standing for extended periods of time recounted being yelled at for asking if he might stand near the front of the checkout line at his local grocery store, after it discontinued the hour it had reserved for older shoppers in the early days of the pandemic.
These stories are merely symptoms of the structural inequities that harm the physical, mental and social wellbeing of our older neighbors, and, by extension, the well-being of our society. The intergenerational digital divide, for example, runs deep here in the Big Apple: internet access is a critical key to accessing telehealth appointments, benefit applications, and virtual classes that promote improved cognition and socialization, but roughly 30 percent of New Yorkers ages 65 and older lack access to the internet at home, compared to less than 10 percent of New Yorkers ages 18 to 64.
In healthcare settings, ageism may manifest in the dismissal of treatable pathologies as inescapable features of advanced age, and in the under-diagnosing conditions like depression, anxiety, and pain. In public spaces like grocery stores and office buildings, environments built without consideration for people with limited mobility can hinder older adults’ independence and participation in the economy.
Ageism in all its facets sports a hefty price tag: a recent study found that ageism accounts for one in every $7—or $63 billion—spent in the U.S. on the eight most expensive health conditions among people aged 60 years and older; another suggests that discrimination against workers ages 50 and older cost the U.S. economy $850 billion in lost gross domestic product in 2018.
To mitigate the transmission and insalubrious impact of ageist biases, we must ensure that New York City’s growing population of 1.25 million adults ages 65 and older can access high-quality services, resources, and opportunities that accommodate their needs and preferences, celebrate their strengths and resilience, and empower them to live in the communities they helped build and continue to make meaningful contributions to. In April 2021, the de Blasio administration took a step in the right direction by announcing a five-year Community Care Plan to expand local aging support services, including in-home community care services, and create a more age-inclusive city for our loved ones, friends, mentors, neighbors, and coworkers.
As the nation celebrates Older Americans’ Month in May, Clio calls on the Adams administration to demonstrate its commitment to that plan with a city budget for Fiscal Year 2023 that invests justly in the self-determination and well-being of older New Yorkers. While we appreciate the additional $14.8 million allocated for home-delivered meals and case management services in the Executive Budget released in April, that amount will fall far short of the increased demand for these essential programs. The city should also invest millions more to support the growth of expensive but critical home care services, and $7.5 million, as requested by the City Council, to improve technology education and access for older adults.
Fittingly, we think, the theme of Older Americans’ Month 2022 is “Age My Way,” echoing that classic Frank Sinatra tune; to honor the experiences, dignity, and contributions of its older residents this month, New York City should allocate money to the support they need to age their way in the post-pandemic era.
Marie Spence is executive director of Clio, Danni Spencer-Laitt is a founding board member of Clio, and Nicole Levy is Clio’s board president.