Locked down by inequality: Older people and the COVID-19 pandemic

Blog post by Tine Buffel, Sophie Yarker, Chris Phillipson, Luciana Lang, Camilla Lewis, Patty Doran and Mhorag Goff

10 Sep 2021, 11:30 a.m.
Tine Buffel, Sophie Yarker, Chris Phillipson, Luciana Lang, Camilla Lewis, Patty Doran and Mhorag Goff



In the UK as elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has had highly unequal impacts.  Areas characterised by high levels of deprivation, often with ageing populations, poor quality housing, and communities experiencing long-term decline through de-industrialisation have been particularly badly affected.


Much of our research prior to the pandemic focussed on the impact of inequalities within and across the ageing population in terms of their social connections and well-being. Working with older people in socio-economically deprived urban neighbourhoods we have explored ways to create and maintain ‘age-friendly cities’. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the associated social distancing guidelines, has led to older people living in deprived neighbourhoods experiencing a ‘double lockdown’ – suffering the effects of enforced social isolation (as a result of COVID-19 related instructions to self-isolate) whilst living in places often badly affected by the loss of services and social infrastructure.


Addressing the unequal impacts of the pandemic requires an understanding of how underlying inequalities are generated across the life course and are amplified by institutional practices, discrimination and abuse. Our new paper brings together perspectives from urban studies, research on ageing from social gerontology, and a review of findings on the impact of COVID-19 to explore the ways in which the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated inequalities in ageing. We offer a novel analysis of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is creating new, and reinforcing existing, inequalities in the ageing population along the lines of gender, class, ethnicity, race, ability and sexuality.


We propose the development of age-friendly recovery strategies in the context of growing inequalities affecting urban neighbourhoods. Building on the work of Michael Marmot and colleagues, we argue that recovery strategies need to focus on building back fairer cities and communities. Creating fair, age-friendly cities will require embedding principles of equity, community empowerment and spatial justice, and be based on a citizenship and rights-based narrative of ageing. At a time when cities are starting to develop their long-term recovery strategies for ‘more inclusive, green and smart cities’, we suggest that the importance of adding an age-friendly lens is at least twofold: first, in the UK people aged 60 and over are the fastest growing cohort of urban populations; and second, older people are often ‘erased’, or rarely incorporated into mainstream thinking and planning around urban environments.


Our paper proposes that post-COVID-19 recovery strategies for cities and communities should build on at least six interrelated age-friendly principles: first, supporting the most vulnerable and prioritising resources in deprived areas; second, challenging the narrative on ageing and combatting ageism; third, promoting age inclusivity in the post-pandemic city; fourth, investing in community-based services, social infrastructure and green spaces; fifth, developing locally based partnerships across organisational boundaries; and sixth, involving older people in designing smart, liveable and resilient cities of the future.


COVID-19 must cause a re-think in the kind of urban infrastructure needed to support vulnerable populations in times of crisis. Experiences of inequalities and spatial injustice underline the need for implementing an age-friendly recovery plan with the values of community empowerment, anti-discrimination and anti-racism at its heart.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


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