It’s not new news that COVID-19 has impacted every person in the country. In early March, most of us began experiencing something that we’ve never experienced before; businesses closed down, social distancing became part of our vocabulary and toilet paper and hand sanitizer were suddenly scarce. As an Elder Care attorney, I’d like to emphasize how the COVID-19 outbreak has affected the lives of seniors and how we can lessen the impact on our senior community.
Susceptibility to Coronavirus
Symptoms of the Coronavirus include coughing or shortness of breath and at least two of the following symptoms: fever, sore throat, chills, headache, muscle pain, or loss of taste or smell. Older adults, seniors, and those with underlying medical conditions are at a higher risk of developing more severe complications from COVID-19. Early data showed that seniors over 85 years old have a mortality rate of 10% to 27%; seniors aged 65-85 had a mortality rate of 3% to 11%; and those aged 55-64 had a mortality rate or 1% to 3%. The general population became increasingly aware of the impact to older adults. As a result, there were many interruptions for seniors – including interruptions in family and community ties, finances, and legal services.
Interruption in Family and Community Ties
Well-meaning family members quickly realized that they were putting their beloved seniors at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 by physically visiting with them. No more stopping by to say hello or help out with a task. No more Friday night puzzles, Sunday brunches, or Monday movie night. Visits with family came to a halt.
Likewise, other community ties were cut short. Senior centers ceased operations, rec centers closed down, churches went to online services, and pretty much every other gathering was put on hold. Without family visits and community engagement, many seniors were left to stay home, many of whom were living alone. The impact of quarantining has left those seniors in total isolation.
Seniors who reside in assisted living facilities and nursing homes were suddenly not allowed to have visitors. In fact, the government banned all visitors from such facilities, with exceptions for compassionate care.  Also, all group activities and communal dining within nursing homes ended. Residents were stuck in their rooms. For some, technology was a lifesaver – FaceTime, Zoom or other video call technologies allowed a window to the outside world but only for those that could navigate the technology. For those that couldn’t, isolation became a heavy weight to bear.
Studies have shown that social isolation can lead to a compromised immune system, a significantly higher rate of heart disease, and a 50% increased risk of dementia.,  For many seniors, social isolation was already a problem before COVID-19. As a matter of fact, about 25% of people over 65 who lived independently were considered previously socially isolated; 43% of those over aged 60 reported feelings of loneliness.
Let’s help seniors fight social isolation during quarantine. Here are some tips on how seniors can battle loneliness during the pandemic:
- Use technology – find classes online, join discussion groups via conference calls, join a virtual gym, or solve puzzles with friends via games and apps. Take advantage of religious or spiritual offerings online. Attend a service, engage in small groups, or join a meditation hour.
- Many seniors may need help finding these opportunities and then determining how to take the steps necessary to engage.
- Have a small family gathering in the front yard while staying at least 6 feet from others.
- A family member who has tested negative for the virus and maintains a self-quarantine policy can become a designated visitor.
- For residents in nursing homes, a family member can come to a closed window and talk via telephone.
Interruption in Financial Health
Many seniors have had a major interruption in their financial health. Many businesses have temporarily or permanently closed down, laying off employees. With unemployment rates surging and no certain end in sight, seniors who rely on a steady paycheck to pay their bills have likely felt the economic crunch.
In addition, the stock market has been very volatile in recent months due to the economic effects of the pandemic. Seniors who once had a nice retirement fund may now find themselves with a depleted account. While younger folks may have time to wait out the stock market decline and hope for better days, those who need their investments now may see a poorer return on investment and a compromised retirement. This can be emotionally stressful for anyone but added to the lack of othere resources and the isolation, it is particularly jarring to seniors.
In an effort to prop the American economy up, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act into law on March 27, 2020. The legislation included:
- Direct payments: Each individual may be eligible for a direct payment from the federal government, up to $1,200 for each individual plus $500 for each child. Eligibility for the payment depends upon the income levels as reported on either the 2019 or 2020 1040 tax return. Seniors that didn’t file tax returns because their only income was Supplemental Security Income or Veterans benefits and thus didn’t meet the income threshold for filing tax returns, will begin to receive their stimulus checks in early May, if they are eligible.
- Unemployment benefits: If a senior has lost their job and files for unemployment, they will likely receive an increased amount over the usual state benefit, up to an additional $600 per week for up to four months.
- Retirement account changes: The Required Minimum Distribution (RDM) rule that says distributions from IRAs and 401kplans must be taken by age 72 has been suspended. Also, there is a new type of hardship withdraw allowed throughout 2020 – a COVID-19-related withdrawal will not be subject to the customary 10% penalty and it may be repaid over a three-year period. The maximum amount withdrawn for this purpose is $100,000 per plan participant.
Interruption in Legal Services
Some seniors quickly realized the need for legal documents – a will, trust, Healthcare Power of Attorney, or living will. A will informs the court who the senior wants to inherit their property at their death. A trust is similar to a will in that it designates beneficiaries of property upon the senior’s death, but it also holds property during the senior’s life. A Health Care Power of Attorney designates who will make health care decisions for them in the event they are sick or incapacitated and can’t make the decisions for themselves.
Our office has been hyper-aware of these important decisions during COVID-19. We have implemented a COVID-19 response working environment to address not only seniors but anyone who wishes to prepare what we’ve called “emergency planning documents” to help ease their mind during this stressful time.
Because Oklahoma law does not recognize electronic signatures on these emergency planning documents, we have implemented a “drive through” signing process. Documents are previewed prior to signing via video conference, allowing signatures to be obtained while the client remains in their vehicle. We provide full service witness and notary upon signing. When video conferencing is not an option, we have office hours available when the fewest amount of people are in the workspace. To all who sign, whether in our drive through process or in office, we follow strict guidelines of sanitation, hand santizer, personalized pen and a hand-off method that allows us to exchange documents with the fewest number of touch points, keeping both the client and our employees safe. We’ve taken our role in the lives of seniors very seriously.
The far-reaching effects of CODIV-19 have likely yet to be seen. Seniors in particular are susceptible to the mortality rate of the virus. Because of this, many seniors have been under self- or government-imposed quarantine. For how long will this be the new norm? Will life ever return to the way it was?
It is important to help seniors battle social isolation, and to keep the interruptions in their community ties to a minimum. Be creative and figure out how to interact with seniors without putting them at risk of contracting the virus. Also help seniors minimize the interruption to their finances – help them figure out how to get their stimulus check, file for unemployment, or seek help with retirement planning.
It is also important for seniors to get their legal documents in order. Everyone needs to detail instructions regarding their health care wishes and who will carry out those health care decisions in the event they are incapacitated. Without these documents in place, a guardianship court proceeding may become necessary. This can be costly and time-consuming, and the court is in control of those decisions, not the senior. And of course, everyone should have a plan in place for their finances upon their death. Who does the senior want to inherit their property? Does the family even know what property the senior owns? Does the senior have any burial instructions?
Hopefully the COVID-19 pandemic will soon come to a close with a medical breakthrough or by other means. All that will remain is the lessons that we have learned and the resolve to move forward. Let’s help seniors transition through this difficult time by strengthening family and community ties, decreasing the financial impact of the pandemic, and getting their legal documents in place.