We all want to get back to normal. Every demographic has been impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another, but no cohort has been more physically threatened by the virus than older Americans. Iowans age 50 and older continue to make up 98% of COVID-related deaths and 75% of hospitalizations. Many older Iowans have been socially isolated for about a year now yet returning to town and their typical routines remains a decision with serious health implications.
One year into the pandemic and it’s still difficult to fully comprehend the challenges facing older Americans. Leaving the house is a risk and staying isolated at home has long-term health consequences. Social isolation among older Americans was a problem before the pandemic, and now it’s become a crisis. Studies show loneliness and isolation can shorten an individual’s lifespan by 15 years, or the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Creating an environment allowing older Iowans to safely return to town must be a top priority. The pandemic will slow and eventually end, then what? Expect the end to be hazy. Today vaccine distribution is improving, older Americans are being prioritized for shots, and there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Yet the length of that tunnel is complicated. The emergence of COVID variants was followed by updated CDC guidelines urging us to wear two masks at the grocery store. Like every phase of COVID-19, safety is not black and white.
A recent survey by AARP Iowa suggests one thing is clear: Older Iowans expect businesses and public gathering locations to follow CDC guidelines and maintain safety measures as they ease into business as usual. Masks? Yes. Social distancing? Yes. Virtual meetings? Yes (and one surprising survey finding is they don’t mind the “occasional” Zoom meeting sticking around in the long-run).
In January 2021 we launched a statewide “Safe Return to Town” survey to measure 50+ Iowans’ thoughts on COVID safety measures in the wake of the launch of the vaccines. Throughout the month we had 2,361 Iowans from all 99 counties take the eight-minute survey. The survey was just a snapshot in time and circumstances change quickly, but the results were eye-opening and should be considered by public officials and business owners before lifting COVID restrictions.
At the beginning of the survey we asked, “Are you leaving home more or less since the beginning of the pandemic?” Considering $.56 of every dollar is spent by the 50+ population, local business owners will not be surprised to learn 78% of respondents said less, while 18% said “about the same” and only 4% said more. This has led to 15-20 percent of Iowa restaurants being permanently closed according to the Iowa Restaurant Association.
Online shopping has increased, but 71% of survey respondents still primarily shop “inside at the store” for essentials such as food and medicine. For those shopping for food and medicine online, curbside pick-up (16%) is three times more popular than home delivery (5%).
When asked specifically about COVID safety measures, masks are king with 95% of respondents saying mask mandates make them feel somewhat or extremely safe, while only 5% said “not at all safe.”
Innovative safety tactics such as outdoor/sidewalk dining also scored well, though not as well as masks. Our survey showed 76% felt safe eating at restaurants outside, while 24% said “not at all safe.” Unlike bigger cities, towns in Iowa have been slow to embrace outdoor dining which would be a lost opportunity in 2021 as weather starts to warm.
For me, the least surprising finding was the surge in walking outside. Since March I’ve been quarantined at a home office in Des Moines with my desk facing a busy sidewalk, and I know firsthand walking has exploded in popularity. Neighbors I’ve never met before now walk in the hot and cold weather. They walk during rain and snow. They walked around with chainsaws after the August derecho to help clean up. Neighborhood dogs have never been happier or more fit. When asked what types of activities survey respondents are doing more of outside, 50% said walking. The next highest-scoring outdoor activity was gardening (17%) followed by biking (4%) and picnics (3%).
Our survey suggested older Iowans will begin venturing out more in the spring if safety measures remain in place. Again, this is a snapshot in time and assumes COVID transmission and hospitalization rates will continue to decline, but they are willing to give businesses a chance. Let’s take their needs into account and keep safety measures in place.
One last thing. We are living in a walking renaissance, but it’s up to local government to see individual neighborhoods thrive. Let’s fill sidewalk gaps, slow traffic and make Iowa more walkable for all ages. Our dogs will thank us.