Despite Risks, Many Seniors Rely on Home Health Remedies

While older adults are at higher COVID-19 risk, many use home remedies to bypass doctors due to cost and access issues.

Published Dec. 7, 2020

 

A large number of older Americans are resorting to self-medicating with home remedies, be it for reasons of distrust in doctors or difficulties affording or accessing more traditional health care. That was the finding from our survey of 764 adults age 65 and older about their use of home remedies for self-medication.

This increasing reliance on unproven treatments and decreasing trust in doctors and health professionals is particularly notable during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been especially dangerous for older adults.

Key Findings

  • 78% of seniors sometimes or always use home remedies. This entails any nonscientific health treatment that isn’t prescribed by or performed under the supervision of a health care professional.

  • More than 2 in 5 seniors report sometimes or always using home remedies against the advice of their doctor.

  • 95% of seniors will try using a home remedy before seeing a doctor when they're sick.

  • Nearly half of respondents (46%) currently use remedies not prescribed by a doctor to prevent COVID-19 infection.

Despite Risks, Many Older Adults Rely on Self-Medicating

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Graphic showing the percentage of seniors who use home remedies against doctor advice

Our study found that even when advised against using certain home remedies by their doctor, 41% of seniors have still sometimes, always or often gone on to use the non-scientific, non-prescribed treatment.

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Graphic showing the percentage of seniors who use home remedies by race and residential geography

Our study found that exactly 1 in 3 adults over the age of 65 always or often use home remedies to treat or prevent poor health. Another 45% reported sometimes using home remedies. The popularity of home remedies was highest with non-white seniors and those who live in rural areas.

Types of Home Remedies

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Graphic showing the popularity of various home remedies among seniors

When we asked what types of home remedies older adults are using, 1 in 5 said they use diet cleanses, and 1 in 4 cite praying as their go-to home remedy.

These data were consistent with our finding that 2 out of every 3 seniors reported sometimes or always using products or treatments not typically sold at a pharmacy. 

We found 1 in 10 seniors use the “wet sock treatment” to treat or prevent sickness, which has no scientific basis and has been denounced by some who previously recommended it as a home remedy.

While not a home remedy, we found a widespread willingness among seniors to keep and use medications – including antibiotics – past their expiration date.

3 out of 5 seniors report always or sometimes keeping expired antibiotics. The same number reported using expired medicine a few times, while 15% said they frequently use expired medicine. Senior men (33%) were almost twice as likely as women (19%) to use expired antibiotics “as much as possible.”

The FDA has made clear the dangers of taking expired medicine and antibiotics. 

Reasons for Using Home Remedies

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Graphic showing the top reasons many seniors use home remedies

The reasons older adults turn to home remedies vary, with more than one-third of respondents saying they do so because they believe it can’t hurt to try. But the various reasons given for using home remedies boiled down to two overarching themes: lack of trust in health care professionals and poor access to care.

In terms of trust, roughly one-quarter of participants said they use home remedies because they either worry about the negative effects of modern medicine, they think home remedies work better than traditional medicine or they don’t trust doctors to have their best interest at heart.

1 in 5 seniors said they use home remedies because doctors are too expensive or not very accessible where they live, or because transportation to a doctor’s office is difficult.

Sources of Home Remedies

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Graphic showing the top sources seniors trust for home remedies

About half of older adults cite family members and family traditions as the source of their home remedies.

More than one-quarter of seniors cited internet websites as their most trusted source of information about home remedies, but just 5% cited social media as their most trusted source. In fact, social media was cited by seniors as the least trusted source of information about home remedies, with 50% of respondents saying so. 

Home Remedies Popular Among At-Risk Populations for COVID-19

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Graphic showing the percentage of seniors who use home remedies to prevent COVID-19 infection, by residential geography

With no cure for COVID-19, people may be even more inclined to use home remedies in an attempt to prevent or treat the novel coronavirus. And we found that the communities who are more vulnerable to serious COVID-19 infection are also the populations who more frequently rely on non-scientific methods to stay healthy during the pandemic.

  • Seniors in rural areas, where more advanced testing and treatment protocols may be less accessible, were more likely to frequently use home remedies not prescribed by a doctor to prevent COVID-19 infection (36%) than those in urban areas (21%). 

  • The COVID-19 fatality rate is higher among men than women, yet the men in our study were slightly more likely to use home remedies to prevent COVID-19 infection. Senior men were also more likely to believe home remedies worked better than traditional medicine and to say doctors were too expensive or not very accessible where they lived.

  • Black and Hispanic Americans have experienced a higher fatality rate from COVID-19 than White Americans. Our study found that Black and Hispanic seniors are more likely than White seniors to rely on home remedies to avoid COVID-19. That finding is consistent with other research showing a hesitancy among these minority groups to take the COVID-19 vaccine due to trust issues.

Overall, 46% of seniors said they sometimes or always use a home remedy not prescribed by a doctor or health professional to prevent COVID-19 infection.

Conclusion

Based on the results of our survey, a large number of older adults use home remedies to self-medicate, and many do so against the advice of a doctor. Lack of trust in doctors and modern medicine as well as a lack of affordability and accessibility to such resources contributes to the use of home remedies among seniors.     

Additionally, many of the demographics that are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 are more likely to use home remedies. 

Methodology

This study was conducted on December 2, 2020, using an audience pool gathered using MTurk, a polling tool. The total survey included 764 respondents age 65 and older.

Participants were filtered based on completion time and failure to follow written instructions within the survey.

Margin of error: +/- 4% (95% confidence interval)

This survey relies on self-reported data.

Fair Use Statement

Of course we would love for you to share our work with others. We just ask that if you do, please grant us the proper citation with a link to this study so that we may be given credit for our efforts.

Research and reports

Our research reports analyze a number of issues important to seniors, from health perceptions, medical communication, health habits, and more.