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New analysis shows older women are being especially badly hit by the pandemic

Published on 19 July 2022 05:47 PM

Age UK says the Government’s Women’s Health Strategy must begin to redress the balance

The latest wave of Age UK’s research into the impact of the pandemic on older people has found that older women have been and continue to be more adversely affected than older men. For example, just over a quarter (28%) of older women say their general health has got worse over this period compared to just over a fifth (22%) of older men. This difference is statistically significant in research terms.

The Government has committed to publishing a Women’s Health Strategy this year and Age UK says it is crucial that it recognises and responds to the needs of older women, as well as younger ones. Previous experience suggests documents of this kind often focus almost exclusively on women of child-bearing age. The charity says that the needs of older women must not be overlooked. 

The charity says its research finds that COVID and its fall out has led to substantial numbers of older women reporting big adverse changes in their physical and mental health. With so much pressure on our health and care services it also finds that many older women have had to take on new caring responsibilities for loved ones, or provide more support for them because the person’s health has deteriorated over the last two years and their care needs have consequently increased.

Older women are also more likely than men to report being anxious and depressed, and to be struggling to access help from their local GP.  We also know that many of the 6 million plus people on NHS waiting lists are older women who are queuing for operations to their knees and hips, cataracts, or for diagnostics.

ONS data show that women have longer life expectancy but shorter healthy life expectancy[i]. This means they spend more of their lives in poor health than men, making access to health care tremendously important for them.

To help address this inequality Age UK is calling for the Government’s forthcoming Women’s Health Strategy to ensure NHS staff are properly trained in the issues affecting older women, including the menopause; that health and care data are disaggregated by sex and that future trials include older women, to improve knowledge about their needs; and to communicate more effectively that the NHS does care about older women, for example by publicising the fact that they can request to continue breast screening after the age of  70 if they wish.

Age UK’s most recent research found that significant numbers of older women are not recovering well from the effects of the pandemic[ii], with:

  • 2,978,000 (35%) older women feeling more anxious since the start of the pandemic compared with older men at 1,571,000 (20%).
  • 2,298,000 (27%) older women saying they are in more physical pain since the start of pandemic compared with 1,492,000 (19%) older men. 
  • 2,383,000 (28%) older women saying their general health has got worse compared with 1,728,000 (22%) older men. 
  • 1,362,000 (16%) older women saying they are less independent compared with 864,000 (11%) older men.

And instead of older women feeling well supported by the health system at a time when it is most needed:

  • 3,744,000 (44%) older women expressed concerns about having access to GPs compared with 2,592,000 (33%) older men.
  • 2,723,000 (32%) older women said they were concerned about having access to hospital appointments compared with 1,885,000 (24%) older men.
  • 2,893,000 (34%) older women had concerns about having access to A&E compared with 2,042,000 (26%) older men.
  • 1,617,000 (19%) older women were concerned about having access to mental health support compared with 1,021,000 (13%) older men.
  • and 1,106,000 (13%) older women worried about access to dementia services compared with 628,000 (8%) older men.

Caroline Abrahams Age UK’s Charity Director said: “Many older women have had a really tough time during the pandemic, perhaps partly because in many families and communities they are often the ones holding everything and everyone together. Some are so busy caring for others around them that they forget to care for themselves, so it’s all the more important that the NHS is accessible and responsive to them, but with services under so much strain at the moment this is not how it feels to everyone.

“The forthcoming Women’s Health Strategy is a good opportunity to start to redress the balance and ensure older women get the attention and consideration they need from the NHS. Of course, there is no magic cure for long waiting lists and pressurised GP practices but there are still things we can do to improve older women’s experiences.

“In our society older women often talk about feeling invisible and overlooked, so the NHS has to work all the harder to give them the confidence to seek help with mental and physical health problems when they arise.

“There’s an important message here for all of us as members of the public too: let’s look out for the older women around us, whether they are relatives, neighbours or friends. A fair few are finding it difficult to adjust to ‘living with COVID’ and we need to work with that and provide them with friendly support and understanding.”

The comments Age UK received from older women who took part in our research the survey include:

“My physical health, arthritis has declined………I lost my husband in August 2020 and my life is no longer worth it.” Woman aged 65-69.

I feel much more anxious, I worry about getting ill and being taken to hospital, spending hours awaiting attention, worry about catching Covid , dementia is in the family, as I get older, this causes concern, how will I end up etc”. Woman aged 85-89.

About 18 months into Covid restrictions I found myself missing many of the activities I normally enjoyed, e.g. meeting friends, family, physical activity, social meetings. I now have short-term memory loss which I'd never had before. I struggle to remember names and what I'd planned to do. I just get on with it but it's very frustrating.” Woman aged 75-79.

With lockdown and isolation it meant less social experience and going out, this has gradually made me now less likely to want to do the things I did before. I also lost my Dad who was in a care home and missed the last months of his life despite me being his representative. We were not allowed to see him until a few days before his death and even this was limited. He died alone and the emotional trauma of this as affected my mental health which in turn as affected my physical health. I am not as active as I was and have become very insular whereas before I was outgoing and fairly active.” Woman aged 60-64.

“I am waiting for treatment for an irritable bladder, my condition is getting worse, my recent telephone consultation with the hospital was cancelled and I was not notified. I only found out when I called the hospital to see why I had not had the telephone call. The telephone call is now re-scheduled for 5 weeks later.” Woman aged 75-79.

“Physio discontinued because of lockdown. Mobility problems began to increase due to inability to access water exercise during lockdown as pools closed. Increased anxiety and digestive problems due to death of close relative in lockdown plus being support bubble for bereaved close relative with Alzheimer's. Now requiring gastro intestinal investigations. Also have now developed a heart arrythmia requiring further cardiac investigation.” Woman aged 65-69.

“Arthritis and mobility much worse even though I walk every day. Lack of help after a very bad fall has meant a problem with my legs has got much worse. I have been told I was not important and not to phone back when I phoned the hospital for an appointment, as I had been instructed to do in a letter from them.” Woman aged 70-74.


ENDS

Notes to editors

The quotes from older women come from a Survey Monkey online survey (open 23rd March – 25th April 2022), promoted on social media and through Age UK networks, with 15,334 respondents. 

REFERENCES

[i] ONS
ONS mid-year population estimates (2020) for total UK population aged 60+ = 16,364,456

[ii] AGE UK Health Influencing Report March 2022

Kantar polling (March 2022) was 52% female = 8,509,517 (48% male = 7,854,938)

Kantar polling (March 2022) was 60% ABC1 (less disadvantaged) = 9,818,674 and 40% C2DE (more disadvantaged) = 6,545,782

 

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Last updated: Jul 19 2022

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