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What Does Normal After COVID-19 Look Like for Older Adults?

COVID-19 has turned the entire world upside-down, and no group has been more affected than those over 55. With the higher risk of complications and death, older adults have a greater stake in this crisis than nearly all other groups. Many seniors have been forced to take stringent quarantine measures and other protective actions to avoid getting sick.

These efforts to avoid disease have created their own problems like feelings of anxiety, boredom, and possibly even depression. As a result, many want to know; how long will the current crisis last? What will the vaccine adoption look like? 

Whenever this storm passes, we'll get back to normal. Or will we? Opinions vary about what "normal" will look like after the pandemic. Some are predicting a "new normal." What might that look like for older adults?

Vaccine Solution?

The widely held assumption that a vaccine signals a return to life as it was before the pandemic may be inaccurate. Instead, experts define the COVID-19 coronavirus as an "endemic" disease that will continually circulate at a baseline level. While the vaccines could keep this baseline low, the disease remains an ongoing threat.

This means the more vulnerable senior population will need to take continuous precautions going forward. Perhaps a periodic vaccine booster becomes the norm. Enhanced infection control measures like wearing a mask may become more commonplace.

Shopping Shifts

Already there has been an explosive uptick in online shopping. On the positive side, had the pandemic occurred 30 years ago when the Internet was in its infancy, who knows what further chaos would have ensued. The existence of a functional system of e-commerce has enabled a level of commercial activity that would have been otherwise impossible.

On a less happy note, options for shopping at a physical store continue to shrink at an accelerated pace. The economic impact of sheltering in place has particularly devastated small businesses despite government assistance programs. Older adults who found an opportunity to get out for some shopping will see their choices decrease. Patronizing smaller businesses, instead of their larger competitors, will help them survive further into the future.

Eating In or Out?

The pandemic has cast a new light on the food supply. Previously, the main focus of food supply issues concerned poverty-driven hunger. Now, shortages at mainline retailers like Costco have affected many more people. While this trend has inconvenienced some, others have been driven to food shelves for the first time. This has shaken the belief in America as the land of plenty.

Social dining has taken a particularly heavy hit. Yet even as some restaurants and bars are reopening (and in some states re-closing), the traditional dining experience may be changed forever. Certainly, heightened needs for disinfection and physical distancing have already changed how restaurants operate. The impact on their ability to stay afloat remains unclear. Still, it seems likely their costs will rise, which will necessarily be passed on to the dining public.

In senior living settings, dining with others represents a meaningful social connection. However, strict quarantine procedures have forced in-room meal service for many residents. While facility dining rooms and restaurants revamp their procedures to allow safe dining, it is expected that an increased level of in-room dining will continue. Also, the growth of online grocery ordering and delivery for independent and assisted living situations, where at least some at-home cooking occurs, is expected to remain strong.

Can Travel Rebound?

Many look forward to traveling in their senior years. Still, the pandemic has crushed airlines, cruise operators, and most other travel providers.

Cruise lines previously had an ongoing issue with infection control, but the pandemic spawned horror stories of entire ships under quarantine, unable to dock. Now, as operators plan for the future, they have to convince travelers cruises are safe. "The real challenge will be reducing perceived risk of actually getting on a ship, and this will require changes in operational practices," Robert Kwortnik, an associate professor in the hotel school at Cornell University, recently told the New York Times. Expected changes are passenger health screenings, infection contingency plans, disease testing onboard, enhanced disinfection, and providing personal protective equipment.

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Another potential trend is a rise in recreational vehicle sales and rentals. Travelers reluctant to trust the safety of hotels, planes, trains, or buses may opt for this form of travel. Early indications show the RV industry, which had been in a multi-year slump, has seen robust sales in the first half of 2020. This could be an excellent alternative for seniors looking to get out and about. Nevertheless, the CDC warns that infection risks remain in RV parks, gas stations, and other public places along the open road.

The Technology Evolution Quickens

Just as online shopping has expanded, video conferencing is another exploding technology. For many seniors, it has become a significant way to keep in touch with family and friends. Yet, many other technological innovations will affect older adults over time:

Voice or motion-activated controls will be more common to reduce touching surfaces like door handles, elevator buttons, and ATMs.

Touchless payments technology will accelerate. Paying by smartphone or holding a card next to a terminal will eliminate the need to make contact with surfaces others could touch.

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Facial recognition will become more prevalent to authenticate identification for purchases or physical entry.

Robots will be further developed to help provide infection-free services. Robots could even provide care and companionship to seniors in the not too distant future.

These are just a few of the things that may change in the post-pandemic world. While not all predictions will come to pass, and some future trends will be a complete surprise, there is no doubt that age 55 and over adults will be living in a new normal.

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