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Dr. Sharon Inouye Pushes For Older Adults in COVID-19 Vaccine Trials

The Harvard geriatrician uses her research and policy expertise to advocate

By Laura McCallum

Dr. Sharon Inouye wants to make sure older adults are at the table when key decisions are made. She is one of the nation's leading voices pushing for age equity in COVID-19 vaccine trials.

A professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Aging Brain Center at Hebrew SeniorLife, Inouye is an internationally recognized clinical and research expert in aging. Inouye developed a proven method for reducing delirium in older adults, the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP), now implemented in hospitals around the world. The prolific scientist has published more than 350 peer-reviewed articles and mentored more than 100 clinical researchers.

For her tireless work and passion for the health and quality of life for older adults, Dr. Sharon Inouye is a 2020 Influencer in Aging.  

Next Avenue: You've said that ageism is one of the biggest threats to improving quality of life for people in America today. What can be done about it?

Dr. Sharon Inouye: Ageism is a really big threat because in many ways in our society right now, it's the only allowable 'ism' at this time. Many people find it socially acceptable. Maybe it's considered part of our youth-oriented culture, that it's okay to disparage older people, that it's okay to expect older people to shrink into the background. Another aspect is that older people themselves tend to be too accepting of that message. 

It's not okay. I think older lives matter and they matter a lot. And I believe that older adults are the glue, they're the heartbeat of our society, both because they created it – it's their work, their blood, sweat and tears that created this world that we're now in – and also they are there supporting the infrastructure in every way. They are watching the grandkids, they are supporting their kids. They are volunteering in every setting. Many are still working right into their late seventies [and] eighties. Many are still actively employed. They're bringing this wisdom, this experience to the job settings. 

"I also feel that I have a larger responsibility to the aging field. I do feel I have to be a spokesperson."

Let's start with your policy work. You said in an interview that making big changes needs to go beyond the health care system. It needs to be societal. Are you putting a lot of energy into that, or is that hard to do right now when you have so much research?

I stand by that statement. We need to start with the evidence, clinically and in the research setting. But in order to make large scale and lasting changes, we need to make those policy changes. Even things like who's going to receive the [COVID-19] vaccine, that's a huge policy issue that's going to impact our older adults. Right now I am working mostly as a clinician, educator and researcher. I am not directly working in D.C. on how to impact policy, but I have many friends and colleagues who I feed the messages to.

Part of the role of the influencer is you can't do it all yourself. So I am speaking with reporters who I know will disseminate these important messages. I am speaking with organizations like the National Academy of Medicine and the American Public Health Association, trying to keep aging on their agendas and keep the focus on older adults during COVID-19.

As an example, I recently had an experience where there was a very important committee coming out with a report on COVID-19 that did not include an aging expert on the committee. And I campaigned far and wide. I started a writing campaign from all the aging organizations. I contacted the President. I contacted the staffers running the committee and the chairs of the committee. And lo and behold, an aging expert got added. 

Let's talk about your research. You have this immense body of work, a lot of work on delirium. Do you feel like your focus now needs to be the vaccine trials? Or are you able to do both? 

That's a very good question. And it's actually one I'm asking myself – where can I do my greatest good? I now have about seventeen million dollars of NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding for delirium work. So I am obligated to continue in that area at least for the next five years. Those studies and that work will remain a priority for me. And I have to add, delirium is epidemic during this time of COVID-19. So I will always continue in that line of research, because I did kind of create the field.

"Whatever comes in my inbox that says COVID on it, that's what I'm going to be doing."

I also feel that I have a larger responsibility to the aging field. I do feel I have to be a spokesperson for the field. I'm a geriatrician, and that means I don't just take care of delirious patients. I have a responsibility to all older adults. I have a responsibility to geriatricians. I have a responsibility to health care systems, to help them take better care of older adults. I have policy training, I have media training. Why did I get all that training if I wasn't going to use it on behalf of the population that I've dedicated my life to? 

You're going to keep doing it all. Do you sleep?

I don't, not since March 18. I basically said to my husband and my family, it's a time like no other. And I have the training, I have the expertise, I have the calling. I have to serve my population. I said to my husband, whatever comes in my inbox that says COVID on it, that's what I'm going to be doing. And so I've remained true to that to this day, but I have to admit that I'm tired. Because at the beginning, we thought it was a sprint. And it's turning into a marathon.

Two Questions for Our Influencers

If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be?

Creating an anti-ageist society would be my top priority – finding ways to combat the pervasive ageism in our society and health care system. COVID-19 has provided an intensive stress test for our aging society, exposing pervasive ageism. Stark age-related inequities have come to the forefront, and finding ways to address those will be a focus for my future work.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging?

The COVID-19 pandemic has made me acutely aware of the interconnectedness of all of us – as individuals, across generations and across societies globally. We are all interdependent on each other for our very safety, health and quality of life. Thus, building an anti-ageist society will help us all, including our current and future selves. 

Photograph of Laura McCallum
Laura McCallum is the former Health and Caregiving Editor for Next Avenue. She is a longtime journalist who worked at MPR News for nearly 27 years. Read More
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