Insights on Canadian Society
Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadian seniors

by Statistics Canada

Release date: October 18, 2021

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Overview of the study

This article brings together insights on the health, social and financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadian seniors aged 65 years and older. The results discussed are based on data from the Canadian Vital Statistics Death Database, the Canadian Community Health Survey, the Labour Force Survey, the Canadian Perspectives Survey Series, and crowdsourcing data.

  • Between the end of March 2020 and mid-May 2021, seniors aged 65 and over accounted for 64% of excess deaths and for 93% of the deaths attributed to COVID-19.
  • Seniors were more likely than younger Canadians to be concerned about their health and to take precautions as a result of the pandemic. They were also more willing to be vaccinated. Between September and December 2020, 83% of seniors said they were “somewhat” or “very” willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 76% of Canadians aged 12 to 64.
  • Seniors were more likely than younger Canadians to report “very good” or “excellent” mental health and less likely to report that their mental health was “somewhat” or “much” worse than before the pandemic.
  • Seniors were less likely to expect the pandemic to have a “major” or “moderate” impact on their ability to meet their financial obligations.
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Introduction

Although COVID-19 has affected all Canadians, seniors are particularly vulnerable to its health impacts, including a higher risk of hospitalization, health complications, and death. Since they are more likely to live alone or in an institution, public health measures limiting social interactions also put seniors at greater risk of social isolation.

A more complete understanding of how seniors fared early in the pandemic can help us ensure we meet their current and future needs. The purpose of this article is to summarize the pandemic’s health, social, and financial impacts on seniors in Canada.

Seniors accounted for the majority of excess deaths in Canada during the first 15 months of the pandemic

Between the end of March 2020 and mid-May 2021, there were over 353,000 deaths in Canada. Canadians aged 65 and older accounted for most of those deaths (80% or 283,227).Note 

The number of deaths in this period exceeded the expected number, which is referred to as “excess mortality.” It is important to note that excess mortality includes not only deaths attributable to the disease itself, but also deaths resulting from both the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic, like delayed medical procedures.

Over the first 15 months of the pandemic, seniors aged 65 and older accounted for 64% of excess deaths (or 12,654) and for 93% (or 21,430) of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 (Table 1).Note 

In these 15 months, Canada experienced significant excess mortality during two distinct periods: the first in the spring of 2020 (from the onset of the pandemic at the end of March to early June 2020), and the second from the fall of 2020 to the winter of 2021 (from end of September 2020 through to the end of January 2021).

In the first period (spring 2020), 8,625 more lives were lost than expected. This closely aligned with the 8,525 deaths attributed directly to COVID-19 over the same period. Seniors were more likely to be affected, with those aged 65 and older accounting for 85% (7,296) of the excess deaths and 94% of deaths directly attributable to COVID-19 itself.

During the second period of excess mortality, from September 2020 to the end of January 2021, there were another 10,240 excess deaths and 9,540 deaths caused by COVID-19. As in the previous period, Canadians aged 65 and older accounted for the majority of each (75% of excess deaths and 94% of COVID-19 deaths).

Another study using multiple cause of death data from the first part of the pandemic suggested people with pre-existing chronic conditions or compromised immune systems were at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 and that seniors, especially those over age 80, were particularly vulnerable.Note 


Table 1
Estimated numbers and percentages of expected, excess and total deaths and number of COVID-19 deaths, by age group and period, Canada, March 28, 2020 to May 15, 2021
Table summary
This table displays the results of Estimated numbers and percentages of expected Expected deaths, Excess deaths, Total deaths and COVID-19 deaths, calculated using estimated number and percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Expected deaths Excess deaths Total deaths COVID-19 deaths
estimated number percent estimated number percent estimated number percent estimated number percent
Weeks ending:
March 28, 2020 to May 15, 2021
0 to 44 years 15,749 4.7 3,110 15.6 18,868 5.3 165 0.7
45 to 64 years 47,182 14.2 4,120 20.7 51,330 14.5 1,470 6.4
65 to 84 years 145,534 43.7 7,264 36.5 152,885 43.3 9,430 40.9
85 years and older 124,876 37.5 5,390 27.1 130,342 36.9 12,000 52.0
Periods 1 to 4 total 333,341 100.0 19,884 100.0 353,425 100.0 23,065 100.0
March 28,2020 to June 6, 2020
0 to 44 years 2,903 4.8 404 4.7 3,307 4.8 40 0.5
45 to 64 years 8,620 14.2 925 10.7 9,545 13.8 455 5.3
65 to 84 years 26,312 43.5 3,044 35.3 29,356 42.4 3,300 38.7
85 years and older 22,701 37.5 4,252 49.3 26,953 39.0 4,730 55.5
Period 1 total 60,536 100.0 8,625 100.0 69,161 100.0 8,525 100.0
June 13, 2020 to September 19, 2020
0 to 44 years 3,977 5.2 1,029 36.5 5,006 6.3 5 0.5
45 to 64 years 11,515 15.0 1,035 36.7 12,550 15.7 80 8.6
65 to 84 years 33,693 43.8 958 34.0 34,651 43.4 390 42.2
85 years and older 27,818 36.1 -204 -7.2 27,614 34.6 450 48.6
Period 2 total 77,003 100.0 2,818 100.0 79,821 100.0 925 100.0
September 26, 2020 to January 23, 2021
0 to 44 years 4,646 4.5 1,045 10.2 5,691 5.0 60 0.6
45 to 64 years 14,257 13.9 1,505 14.7 15,762 14.0 500 5.2
65 to 84 years 44,752 43.7 3,596 35.1 48,348 42.9 3,785 39.7
85 years and older 38,845 37.9 4,094 40.0 42,939 38.1 5,195 54.5
Period 3 total 102,500 100.0 10,240 100.0 112,740 100.0 9,540 100.0
January 30, 2021 to May 15, 2021
0 to 44 years 4,223 4.5 632 -35.1 4,855 5.3 60 1.5
45 to 64 years 12,790 13.7 655 -36.4 13,445 14.7 435 10.7
65 to 84 years 40,777 43.7 -334 18.6 40,443 44.2 1,955 48.0
85 years and older 35,512 38.1 -2,752 153.0 32,760 35.8 1,625 39.9
Period 4 total 93,302 100.0 -1,799 100.0 91,503 100.0 4,075 100.0

The impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s senior population has changed since the beginning of 2021. According to provisional data, from the end of January 2021 to mid-May 2021, persons aged 65 and older were no longer experiencing excess mortality. In fact, the situation has reversed, with those aged 65 and older accounting for fewer deaths than might normally be expected before COVID-19. This may be due to various factors such as high rates of vaccination, which began in December of 2020 for those aged 80 and older, decreases in other illnesses (e.g., influenza) or fewer injuries and accidents. It may also be that those who were most vulnerable to the virus had already died earlier in the pandemic.

Seniors more likely to be concerned about their health and more likely to take precautions

For Canadian seniors, the first few months of the pandemic, when little was known about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, were particularly stressful. For example, 46% of those aged 65 and older reported being “very” or “extremely” concerned about their own health during the spring (March and April) of 2020 (Chart 1).Note  This was higher than the percentage reported by some younger age groups (26% among 15- to 34-year-olds and 36% among 35- to 49-year-olds). Maintaining social ties was also a concern for both seniors and non-seniors, with about one-third (32% to 36%) of each age group reporting being “very” or “extremely” concerned about doing so.

Comparisons to data collected in July 2020 suggest that concern for both one’s own health and maintaining social ties tended to decline with time, particularly among those aged 50 and older.Note  Several factors may account for these changes, including a reduction of COVID-19 case counts during the summer of 2020 and adjustment to life under COVID-19.

Perhaps out of greater concern about their health, in April 2020, seniors took more precautions and made more changes to their habits as a result of the pandemic. For example, they were more likely than younger crowdsourcing participants aged 15 to 64 to report not going to a grocery store or a drugstore (34% vs 22%).Note  They were also more likely to use delivery services to get their groceries or medication (26% vs. 19%).

Seniors continued to maintain precautions even after public-health restrictions were eased, several months after lockdown during the first wave of the pandemic. By June 2020, seniors were more likely than 15- to 64-year-olds to wear masks in public spaces (77% vs. 62%), avoid crowds and large gatherings (91% vs. 81%) and keep their distance from others (86% vs. 79%).Note 

Chart 1

Data table for Chart 1 
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1 Age group, 15 to 34 years, 35 to 49 years, 50 to 64 years and 65 years and older (ref.), calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age group
15 to 34 years 35 to 49 years 50 to 64 years 65 years and older (ref.)
percent
Own health March/April 2020 26.1Note * 36.0Note * 40.8 46.2
July 2020 25.1 22.9Note *  Note  29.1Note  32.0Note 
Maintaining social ties March/April 2020 35.9 33.1 31.7 32.0
July 2020 30.0 26.2 20.2Note  21.4Note 

By the fall of 2020 (September to December), more than four-fifths (83%) of Canadians aged 65 and older said they were “somewhat” or “very” willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to three-quarters (76%) of Canadians aged 12 to 64.Note 

Seniors were also more willing to use a contact-tracing application than younger Canadians, even though some likely had more limited access to digital technologies like smartphones. In June 2020, 33% of seniors reported they would be “very likely” to use a contact-tracing application, compared to 16% of Canadians aged 15 to 24.Note 

In early 2021, 7 in 10 seniors reported very good or excellent mental health

Although seniors were at the greatest risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19, in addition to their higher risk of death, their mental health generally remained better than that of younger Canadians. From January to April 2021, when much of the country was experiencing a third wave of COVID-19, 69% of Canadians aged 65 and older reported “very good” or “excellent” mental health (Chart 2).Note  The comparable proportions for those aged 18 to 34, 35 to 49, and 50 to 64 were 51%, 59%, and 63%, respectively; this reflects the well-established pattern of older adults having greater resiliency to stress.Note 

Chart 2

Data table for Chart 2 
Data table for Chart 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 2. The information is grouped by Age group (appearing as row headers), Year, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 (Jan-Apr), calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age group Year
2018 2019 2020 2021 (Jan-Apr)
percent
18 to 34 years 64.0Note * 60.9Note * 59.0Note * 48.2Note *
35 to 49 years 68.5Note * 66.6Note * 64.2Note * 55.7Note *
50 to 64 years 69.4Note * 69.6 66.5Note * 60.3Note *
65 years and over (ref.) 72.2 70.8 71.0 67.9

The prevalence of positive screens for major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and probable post-traumatic stress disorder was the lowest among seniors, as well. For example, between September 2020 and December 2020, 11% of seniors screened positive for at least one disorder, compared with 33%, 25%, and 18% of those aged 18 to 24, 25 to 44, and 45 to 64, respectively.Note  Respondents were not asked to report their symptoms in specific relation to the COVID-19 pandemic; as such, any reported symptoms may have been present before the beginning of the pandemic.

Furthermore, in March and April 2021, 33% of seniors reported that their mental health was “somewhat” or “much” worse than before the pandemic, compared with 45% of individuals 18 to 64 years of age (Chart 3).Note 

Chart 3

Data table for Chart 3 
Data table for Chart 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 3 Age group, 18 to 64 years and 65 years and older, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age group
18 to 64 years 65 years and older
percent
September 2020 33.0 23.5
October 2020 34.0 27.5
November/December 2020 40.1 29.9
January/February 2021 42.9 31.3
March/April 2021 44.4 33.0

While seniors tend to report their mental health more positively than younger people, this does not mean that older Canadians’ mental health has not been affected by the pandemic. Other data on changes in mental health over the course of the pandemic suggest that mental health of both younger (18 to 64) and older (65 and older) Canadians has gotten worse. For example, the percentage of seniors aged 65 and older reporting that their mental-health status was “somewhat” or “much” worse than before the pandemic has been increasing steadily over the course of the pandemic from 24% in September 2020 to 33% in March and April 2021.Note  This trend was also observed among younger Canadians, although they remained more likely than seniors to report that their mental health was worse than before the pandemic.

Seniors less likely to expect that the pandemic will have an adverse effect on their finances

Because most seniors in Canada are retired,Note  they rely less on employment income and more on other sources, including government and private pensions. For example, in 2019, 29% of the total income of seniors consisted of income from employment compared to 85% for those under age 65.Note  Unsurprisingly, seniors reported that the pandemic impacted their finances less dramatically than Canadians in other age groups. For example, while 14% of seniors reported in May 2020 that the pandemic would have a “moderate” or “major” impact on their ability to meet financial obligations or essential needs, such as rent, mortgage payments, groceries, or utilities, this was lower than the 25% or more reported by younger age groups.Note 

Moreover, older Canadians remained, between April 2020 and June 2021, less likely than younger Canadians to live in households that reported it was “difficult” or “very difficult” to meet basic household financial commitments (Chart 4).Note 

Other data from May 2020 also show the differential financial impacts of the pandemic across generations.

Chart 4

Data table for Chart 4 
Data table for Chart 4
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 4. The information is grouped by Age group (appearing as row headers), April 2020 and June 2021, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age group April 2020 June 2021
percent
15 to 24 years 23.8Note * 24.0Note *
25 to 34 years 21.7Note * 19.0Note *
35 to 44 years 22.3Note * 19.1Note *
45 to 54 years 21.6Note * 20.2Note *
55 to 64 years 20.3Note * 18.7Note *
65 years and older (ref.) 14.5 15.0

Conclusion

This article provided a summary of the health, social, and financial impacts of the pandemic on seniors in Canada. Seniors have experienced a greater share of both excess deaths and COVID-19-caused deaths as compared to younger age groups. They were also more likely to be concerned about their health and to take precautions. Despite this, they were more likely to report “very good” or “excellent” mental health. They were also less likely to live in households that reported difficulty in meeting basic household financial commitments.

The information needed to fully assess the pandemic’s impact on the income and finances of seniors is not yet available. However, this issue could be examined in greater depth using 2021 Census data, which would also allow results to be disaggregated according to different subpopulations of seniors, such as by country of birth, gender, mother tongue, region (province), and Indigenous identity. More generally, the 2021 Census will show how the pandemic has profoundly altered population growth, sources of income, commuting patterns and many other aspects of our lives. Finally, other Statistics Canada sources of information such as the Canadian Community Health Survey, Cancer Statistics and Vital Statistics (deaths) will help us better understand the longer-term physical and mental health consequences of the pandemic on Canadians seniors.

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