Yesterday, I had an interview with a reporter from a national publication. She and I had spoken a couple of years ago, in the depths of the COVID pandemic, and she is working on a follow-up piece. We talked about where we are now, as an elder services provider, and about the difference between now and the dark days of 2020.
She asked me about lessons learned, about how we would function differently if we faced another pandemic and she asked me, specifically, about whether we were “back to normal” or whether we were facing a “new normal.”
I have to admit, the phrase “new normal” gave me a bit of pause. I’ve heard it before, even used it before but, at this juncture, had to really stop and think about what it meant. We’d talked about “new normal” in the context of wearing PPE, about ongoing testing, about daily screening of staff and visitors, about so many things we have had to get accustomed to, things we had to accept as part of our daily life. But today, many of those practices are decreasing or ending. Unlike many other places, we are still wearing masks and have ongoing testing, as needed, as well as vaccine clinics but life is beginning to look like the life we used to know.
But what I do think are hallmarks of a “new normal” are the changes in the way many of us who work with older adults now see the world. There was a point in time, pre-March 2020, when we expected that knowledge and resources would be there when we needed them. After all, the CDC and the many government agencies we deal with had always provided direction and answers. We know now that there are times that we have to find our own answers; that we cannot rely on others for meaningful help. We know now that even the hint of a health issue elsewhere on the globe must result in action. There is no “it’s a million miles away” dismissal. Anything can travel and affect us. Anything, anywhere and anytime. There is no room for complacency or ignorance. PPE? That one, too, is part of the change in the way we approach our work and I know that I, like many of my colleagues, will never again be without a three month supply of PPE . . . just in case.
For me, though, the biggest element of the “new normal” is an even deeper understanding of the ageism that exists, the ageism that forced elders in residential settings into months and months of lockdown. Denying our elders their right to choose, denying them interaction with their families, denying them socialization, all under the guise of “safety” and “protection” is not something that I will ever accept again. Regardless of age, each individual has rights and these cannot and should not be denied. Can we keep people safe even when faced with infectious disease? We can. And can we allow our elders the opportunity to choose, to decide on their own “dignity of risk?’ We can and we must.
The “new normal” is starting to look and feel much like the “normal” we remember. But we approach this new normal with a heightened awareness, a broader perspective and a renewed commitment to standing up and standing firm for the wellbeing of our older adults.