COVID-19 – the impact on older women

A blog by Marion Prechtl

“Of persons infected with COVID-19, the course of the disease is severe, dramatic or even fatal (at a reported percentage between 1% and 15%), with the highest percentage in older persons.

The media emphasise that this disease is the disease of older people. In view of the current crisis and the potential devastating effects for the future, media coverage is contributing to the stigmatisation and discrimination of the older persons (ageism).

Some of these effects are already known. In Italy and Spain, the overcrowding of hospitals has forced the introduction of a so-called triage system. This means that doctors have to decide which persons will receive life-preserving treatment, while others are left to lose their life – in general, these are the older persons because their chance of survival is lower. In some cases, old people were not even taken to hospital.

Governments have reacted to the spreading of the disease with varying degrees of speed in their crisis management. One of the key measures taken are curfews, and it can be seen that these have improved the situation everywhere, at least in terms of the number of people infected at the same time.

Older persons do not only face a higher health risk, but are also less likely to be able to support themselves in isolation. Older people living alone, especially those with mobility problems, need help in obtaining food, medicines and other essential goods, and in cleaning.

Persons in need of care who still live independently in their homes, but require daily care, are at higher risk because they are exposed to a potential risk of infection through the daily change of carers.

The ban on going out leads to the elderly people taking less exercise. This leads to a reduction in mobility and, especially in old age, to rapid muscle atrophy. This can have serious disadvantages for the future, because older people will then require an even higher level of care.

The ordered self-isolation particularly affects older women. On OECD average, women over 80 are twice as likely to live alone as men. (OECD 2020(42). As a consequence, a much higher number of them is more affected by these negative effects.

Social distancing must not mean abandoning older people or driving them into isolation. The use of technology is becoming increasingly important for maintaining communication and social commitment in the period of self-isolation (best practice example: Many older women are not so affine to modern communication technology. On average, they have less access to and experience with digital technology.

Many older women have lower pension support than men at the same age – either as a result of the gender pay gap, or because they lost their jobs late in their career and have to worry about their future because it is difficult to get a job again after the age of 50. This causes stress and anxiety. (economic insecurity).

Older women should definitely not take care of grandchildren in quarantine or similar exceptional situations, for reasons of infection described above. But this leads to other negative consequences, as many working parents, especially single mothers, face almost insurmountable challenges without a family network.

Finally, with the lack of medical personnel during the rapid spreading of the disease, doctors and nurses (mainly women) in retirement responded to the call to work again in order to maintain the health system. Again, as the female part is very high, this poses another threat to this large group.”

Further information:

OECD (2020), How’s Life? 2020: Measuring Well-being, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Subscribe to receive the Soroptimist International Newsletter by email.