Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Experiences among Older Adults with Disabling Conditions

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This paper examines the experiences of older adults with disabling conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic using data from the 2020 Health and Retirement Study.  It documents the negative health, work, and financial experiences of older adults by disability status, race, and ethnicity.  It also explores the intersectionality of race and ethnicity with disability and the role of contextual factors affecting the environments in which people live (e.g., health and economic conditions) using county- and state-level data.

The paper found that:

  • Many older adults reported experiencing financial hardships (31 percent), delaying health care (31 percent), and experiencing effects on work (29 percent).
  • Compared with older adults without disabilities, older adults with disabilities were more likely to report delaying many types of health care, such as surgeries and prescriptions, experiencing financial hardships since the start of the pandemic.
  • Among older adults whose work was impacted by the pandemic, more older adults with disabilities reported stopping work than older adults without disabilities, and fewer moved to remote work.
  • There were differences in experiences across races and ethnicities. Hispanic, Latino, and Black older adults, and older adults in other racial and ethnic groups, were more likely than White older adults to report that financial hardships and that the pandemic impacted their work.
  • Differences across racial and ethnic groups were larger when examined across disability status than when examined among all older adults. For example, more Hispanic or Latino older adults with disabilities did not have enough money to buy food (22 percent) compared with Hispanic or Latino older adults without disabilities (11 percent) and with White older adults with disabilities (7 percent).
  • Older adults with disabilities were more likely to live in counties with greater vulnerability to the pandemic.
  • Although there were few associations between contextual factors and individual experiences, race, ethnicity and disability status remained important after accounting for these factors.

 The policy implications of the findings are:

  • Developing a robust, disability-inclusive public health response for future public health emergencies could provide additional protection to this vulnerable population.
  • Continuing to study intersecting identities is important to understanding the experiences of older adults and recognizing that multiple marginalized identities could exacerbate negative outcomes.
  • Enacting policies that mitigate the financial impacts of public health emergencies might be universally beneficial for older adults.