The Vanishing Senior: A silent epidemic

Vanishing senior shrinking heads
October 1, 2020
Neil Charness, Ph.D., director, Institute for Successful Longevity

There is another serious epidemic silently spreading in America: senior invisibility.  Nearly everyone except for essential workers experienced “early retirement” from everyday activities, at least for a while, when stay-at-home orders went into effect across the country.

It certainly has not been a fun experience, though we have learned how to cope and restructure our daily activities, including work activities.  Many states have re-opened “normal” activities, some too quickly, including my own state of Florida which spiked up in COVID-19 cases at an alarming rate.  However, even as we reopen (and possibly close down again, pendulum style) we are facing a second risk, what we can call “The Vanishing Senior.”   

As the statistics of coronavirus cases make clear, the older the person the greater the risk of dying (  If a 20-year-old contracts the disease, only about 2 out of a thousand will die. If someone my age (70s) contracts Covid-19, roughly 8 of 100 will succumb.  If someone age 80 and above contracts the disease, about 1 of 5 will perish.  What this means is that we will likely adopt policies that “protect” the most vulnerable in the population, who happen for the most part to be older adults.

A recent paper by economists that looked at how best to protect lives and economic well-being, measured as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), argued that severe lockdowns for seniors and looser ones for other age groups provide the best way to minimize both loss of life and loss of economic value associated with lockdowns: However, such a policy may exacerbate an already bad situation for seniors.  They will stay restricted until there is an effective treatment for, or vaccine to prevent, COVID-19, and will be left behind while the rest of the population emerges out of their homes to venture about in the new normal.

Particularly for those still in the labor force, an increasing number of older workers over the past decade or so, there will be undue pressure to retire.  An example was pointed out to me by a former postdoctoral student whose university was planning for in-person teaching in the fall.  He noted that two older faculty members in his department suddenly decided to retire.  When faced with the risk posed by being in a classroom with students, whose risk-taking behavior is legendary ( those seniors probably didn’t like the odds for classroom Russian Roulette and chose to leave the academy.

That same situation is playing out in public and private schools where administrators may be seizing the opportunity to purge older, more expensive teachers from the rolls, forcing them to choose between retiring and risking their lives to return to the classroom in person. In response to a query about whether her decision to retire early was influenced by COVID-19, one older teacher in Virgina told the Institute for Successful Longevity: “That is exactly why. A few of our school board members stated at a July school board meeting that teachers could quit or retire if they didn’t feel safe going back to face to face teaching. They wanted to have teachers sign a waiver that would protect the school system should they become sick. They wanted to ask the governor for a waiver to put more students on buses and in classrooms.”

That silent epidemic of involuntary retirement is likely to be replicated throughout the country for older workers who already faced significant age discrimination in employment. The usual trend in economic hard times is for younger workers to lose jobs sooner and for older workers who are laid off to regain jobs much later and at much lower wages.  That trend is apparently changing, as older workers seem to be experiencing higher percentage increases in unemployment than younger workers in this downturn, with women particularly strongly affected:

A recent review found 2.9 million older workers leaving the workforce since March 2020, compared to 1.9 million who left in the three months after the start of the Great Recession in 2007:  It also appears that age discrimination increases in tandem with a rise in unemployment: So, there may be a vicious circle developing.  

It is not only the paid older workforce that is at risk.  We likely will see a significant decline in volunteering by senior citizens who are being told to stay at home.  I doubt that hospitals will welcome them back any time soon, given the risk of infection.  It seems unlikely that senior centers will be able to reopen in the near future, or that long-term care facilities will allow in-person visits by family imminently while rates are still high and climbing in some states.  Seniors were already vanishing from the community landscape early on during the lockdown, in part by being encouraged to use special senior hours for shopping.

Seniors play a huge role in the economic health of our country, an estimated $8 trillion spent in 2018 by those age 50+, with their expenditures forecasted to rise to $28 trillion by 2050 (  They eat out at restaurants, take vacations, and have the most stable source of income in the economy (Social Security, pensions), propping up many communities during economic hard times such as the present.  They have an equally outsized influence on our social economy, helping with childcare (grandparents raising their children’s children) and volunteering in the community.

So, unless we find mitigation measures, the silent epidemic of The Vanishing Senior can be expected to continue, spreading with increasing malignancy.

What can we do to combat this infection?  We will need to redouble our efforts to enable seniors to participate, particularly through technology (mentioned in my prior column:  We will need to ensure that workplaces adopt senior-friendly work rules and appropriate accommodations.  We will need to increase efforts to bring more activities outdoors, where it is safer for older adults to volunteer and engage with others while masked and at a safe distance.

We are going to need to be creative in how we attack the coming silent epidemic.  Let’s get to work!