COVID-19 indicators for older people

Dr Judith Davey

In February 2020, the Office for Seniors released a set of indicators to track the outcomes of the Better Later Life – He Oranga Kaumātua 2019 to 2034– report[1]. These were later adapted to track the impact of COVID-19 on older people. Indicator data have been reported on in July and August 2020.

Limitations on the  interpretation of trends recorded so far must be acknowledged, e.g. the short time frame, difficulties of comparing this new data to established data sets such as the General Social Survey (last reported in 2018) and small sample sizes which limit disaggregation by age, gender, location and ethnicity. The age group covered is 65 plus, except for the work-related indicators which include people aged 50 plus – which has become us general definition for “older workers”.

The intention was to examine the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 self-isolation requirements and border restrictions, concentrating on the areas where older people and older workers were expected to be most affected. For each area a rationale is provided – quoted below. I have included here only broad conclusions from the findings.

Unemployment of older workers (aged 50+) – percentage of people in the labour force who are not working, are available for work and actively seeking work. 

Rationale: older workers who lose their job are more likely to become unemployed long-term than younger workers.

The official unemployment rate for workers aged 50 plus did not increase in the June 2020 quarter[2]. Theproportion of older workers supported by the original Wage Subsidy (WS) and the COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Extension (WSX) was similar to the support levels for employees of all ages – round about half.

Male job holders  aged 50+ are more likely than women to be in jobs supported by the WS (66% for men and 46% for women aged 50+) and WSX (17% of men aged 50+ versus 11% of women aged 50+). [3]

Jobseeker Support and other benefit take-up (for those aged 50+) -from MSD administrative data.

Rationale: The number of people on income support is expected to increase as people lose their jobs and earn less from investments, and investment balances reduce. Some people who lose their job due to COVID-19 may take up the COVID-19 Income Relief Payment (CIRP)[4].

The number of people aged 50+ receiving Jobseeker Support (JS) and CIRP increased over the period. More people over 50 are also receiving other benefits and supplementary assistance, for example Accommodation Supplement and Disability Allowance.

Loneliness – percentage of older people feeling lonely at least some of the time. The primary data source for this is likely to be the HLFS COVID-19 supplement.

Rationale: Loneliness and social isolation may be a particular risk for those aged 70+ or with compromised immune systems who were asked to stay home for longer, and for those who are unable to connect with family and friends digitally.

The proportion of people aged 75 plus who have felt lonely at least some of the time in the previous four weeks was higher in the June 2020 quarterthan the equivalent measure collected in the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS). [5] 

Discrimination – percentage of seniors experiencing discrimination, including ageism, from Stats NZ’s HLFS COVID-19 supplement.

Rationale: Perceptions that lockdown and the associated economic impacts were only to protect older people, and that older people are vulnerable, may increase ageism.

The proportion of people aged 65-74 who experienced some form of discrimination in the previous 12 months increased in the June 2020 quarter[6]. But these comparisons do not exactly cover the COVID-19 period. Older women are more likely to report loneliness and discrimination than men. But on most measures young people remain the most likely to experience these risks to mental health.

Elder abuse – numbers of calls to the Elder Abuse Hotline and numbers of approaches or cases received by Elder Abuse Response Services.

Rationale: Some older people may have become more vulnerable to elder abuse due to increased family stress (including financial stress) and being unable to leave their home environment.

Calls to the Elder Abuse Hotline this year were lower than in the same period the previous year. Any firm conclusions about these data must await a longer time series.

Housing – number/percentage of older people on the Public Housing Register. Also, data from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development on older people in motels due to COVID-19 and data from their rental survey.  

Rationale: Reduced incomes may affect some older people’s ability to fund rents and mortgages. Older people are least likely age groups to be in severe housing deprivation and least likely to be on the public housing register.

The number of people aged 65+ on the public housing register continued to increase[7] as did the number of seniors receiving emergency housing grants from MSD

Material hardship – percentage of older people with low material wellbeing from Stats NZ’s Household Labour Force Survey COVID-19 supplement.

Rationale: Material hardship may increase due to reduced employment earnings, reduced income from investments (including interest) and impacts on investment balances (including KiwiSaver).

Seniors are less likely to be in material hardship than younger people, but some are experiencing financial difficulties according to Commission for Financial Capability online survey[8] Ministry of Justice’s COVID-19 Justice Sector Survey[9].

[1] http://www.superseniors.msd.govt.nz/about-superseniors/ageing-population/indicators/better-later-life-indicators.html

[2] This must take into accounthow unemployment is measured in official statistics. To be counted as officially unemployed, a person must have been actively seeking work in the last four weeks and be available to start a job. While the country was in lockdown, fewer people who did not have a job were actively seeking and available for work. As New Zealand moved through less restrictive COVID-19 alert levels, the unemployment rate rose.

[3] These figures exclude sole traders.

[4] People who qualify for NZ Super may be eligible and people on other benefits may choose to switch from a benefit to the Income Relief Payment.

[5] Some caution is needed in comparing these survey results. The GSS collects data across a full year via face-to-face interviews from people aged 15 and over, while the HLFS supplement collects data for the quarter, primarily via phone interviews, from people aged 18 and over.

[6] 2018 data from the GSS, more recent data from Stats NZ’s COVID-19 supplement.

[7] https://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/statistics/housing/index.html

[8] CFFC, 2020. Impact of Covid-19 on Financial Wellbeing. https://cffc.govt.nz/news-and-media/news/covid-19-exposing-new-zealanders-financial-vulnerability/.

[9] https://www.justice.govt.nz/justice-sector-policy/research-data/covid-19-justice-sector-survey/

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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