People who fit this description are more likely to die from COVID-19 than any other group in the country.
Yet, older Black Americans have received little attention as protesters proclaim that Black Lives Matter and experts churn out studies about the coronavirus.
“People are talking about the race disparity in COVID deaths, they’re talking about the age disparity, but they’re not talking about how race and age disparities interact: They’re not talking about older black adults,” said Robert Joseph Taylor, director of the Program for Research on Black Americans at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.
The data comes from the week that ended Feb. 1 through Aug. 8. Although breakdowns by race and age were not consistently reported, it is the best information available.
Mistrustful of Outsiders
Yet many vulnerable Black seniors are deeply distrustful of government and health care institutions, complicating efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s impact.
“A lot of Black elders in this area migrated from the South a long time ago and were victims of a lot of racist practices growing up,” said Margaret Boddie, 77, who directs the program. “With the pandemic, they’re fearful of outsiders coming in and trying to tell them how to think and how to be. They think they’re being targeted. There’s a lot of paranoia.”
“They won’t open the door to people they don’t know, even to talk,” complicating efforts to send in social workers or nurses to provide assistance, Boddie said.
“Health literacy is a big issue in the older African American population because of how people were educated when they were young,” she said. “My maternal grandmother, she had a third-grade education. My grandfather, he made it to the fifth grade. For many people, understanding the information that’s put out, especially when it changes so often and people don’t really understand why, is a challenge.”
What this population needs, Lincoln suggested, is “help from people who they can relate to” — ideally, a cadre of African American community health workers.
With suspicion running high, older Blacks are keeping to themselves and avoiding health care providers.
“Testing? I know only of maybe two people who’ve been tested,” said Mardell Reed, 80, who lives in Pasadena, California, and volunteers with Lincoln’s program. “Taking a vaccine [for the coronavirus]? That is just not going to happen with most of the people I know. They don’t trust it and I don’t trust it.”
Reed has high blood pressure, anemia, arthritis and thyroid and kidney disease, all fairly well controlled. She rarely goes outside because of COVID-19. “I’m just afraid of being around people,” she admitted.
Other factors contribute to the heightened risk for older Blacks during the pandemic. They have fewer financial resources to draw upon and fewer community assets (such as grocery stores, pharmacies, transportation, community organizations that provide aging services) to rely on in times of adversity. And housing circumstances can contribute to the risk of infection.
In Chicago, Gilbert James, 78, lives in a 27-floor senior housing building, with 10 apartments on each floor. But only two of the building’s three elevators are operational at any time. Despite a “two-person-per-elevator policy,” people crowd onto the elevators, making it difficult to maintain social distance.
‘Striving Yet Never Arriving’
This year, for some elders, violence against Blacks and COVID-19’s heavy toll on African American communities have been painful triggers. “The level of stress has definitely increased,” Lincoln said.
During ordinary times, families and churches are essential supports, providing practical assistance and emotional nurturing. But during the pandemic, many older Blacks have been isolated.
In her capacity as a volunteer, Reed has been phoning Los Angeles seniors. “For some of them, I’m the first person they’ve talked to in two to three days. They talk about how they don’t have anyone. I never knew there were so many African American elders who never married and don’t have children,” she said.
Meanwhile, social networks that keep elders feeling connected to other people are weakening.
“What is especially difficult for elders is the disruption of extended support networks, such as neighbors or the people they see at church,” said Taylor, of the University of Michigan. “Those are the ‘Hey, how are you doing? How are your kids? Anything you need?’ interactions. That type of caring is very comforting and it’s now missing.”
In Brooklyn, New York, Barbara Apparicio, 77, has been having Bible discussions with a group of church friends on the phone each weekend. Apparicio is a breast cancer survivor who had a stroke in 2012 and walks with a cane. Her son and his family live in an upstairs apartment, but she does not see him much.
“The hardest part for me [during this pandemic] has been not being able to go out to do the things I like to do and see people I normally see,” she said.
In Atlanta, Celestine Bray Bottoms, 83, who lives on her own in an affordable senior housing community, is relying on her faith to pull her through what has been a very difficult time. Bottoms was hospitalized with chest pains in August — a problem that persists. She receives dialysis three times a week and has survived leukemia.
“I don’t like the way the world is going. Right now, it’s awful,” she said. “But every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is thank the Lord for another day. I have a strong faith and I feel blessed because I’m still alive. And I’m doing everything I can not to get this virus because I want to be here a while longer.”
KHN data editor Elizabeth Lucas contributed to this story
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.