“Forsake us not when we grow old; when our strength fails, do not abandon us.” (Psalm 71:9)
The Psalmist recognized that abandoning those at the margins in a collective time of need is an ever-present danger. But could he have imagined these terrifying prospects: old people dying isolated, frightened, surrounded not by loved ones, but by machines and masked, gowned healthcare workers. Bodies piled up in corners of nursing homes and in refrigerator trucks. Escalating numbers of lost ones, even as they are not officially tallied. Politicians suggesting that older people should be willing to die in exchange for economic recovery. These specters represent my own worst fears for my 88 year-old mother.
Surely America in the age of Coronavirus is a manifestation of the Psalmist’s fears. Data on the quantity of deaths and distribution across various social groupings are incomplete, but, even so, it is clear that elders, particularly those who are most frail, are bearing the brunt of this virus. Eighty percent of COVID-19 deaths are among those 65 and over. Sixty-one percent of Pennsylvania COVID-19 deaths have been in nursing homes. It is true that the virus is particularly lethal for older people, but the vulnerability to the virus is also the result of action or, more likely, inaction, to protect elders.
We are sacrificing our elders, rather than protecting them. It was known from the earliest days of the pandemic that older people are most vulnerable, and that congregate care settings are like brush to a match. It is perhaps understandable that nursing homes in the first days of the pandemic were unprepared and ill-equipped. But two months have gone by, and still, facilities in communities only now seeing cases are seeing deaths by the dozens, in one case, 79 deaths in a single New Jersey institution. In a Long Island home where over 47 residents have died, staff were reported to be wearing trash bags in place of appropriate personal protective equipment.
State and local health officials and leaders of these institutions evidently failed to plan and prepare their facilities and their staffs. It is not an incidental fact that 80% of nursing homes are for-profit organizations. The cost of adequately protecting residents and staff was not made a priority. Not only are the lives of elders being discarded, but frontline workers who care for them, often working in terrible conditions for inadequate wages, are also effectively abandoned.
As our states and nation debate how to responsibly lift restrictions on commerce, Lt. Governor of Texas Dan Patrick said that if he were asked if we would be willing to risk his own survival for his children’s economic future, he would answer, “I’m all in…don’t sacrifice the country…don’t ruin this great America.” Patrick has been joined in his view that elders may be sacrificed to protect the economy by conservative news hosts and the U.S. President’s son.
The neglect of helpless elders and the suggestion that the lives of older adults are dispensable have laid bare the toxic scourge of ageism–stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. Ageism is rampant; it shows up in treatment of elders, and in how they see–and too often devalue–themselves. Yes, there have been many acts of kindness and heroism in the midst of the pandemic. I have heard stories from my older congregants of neighbors and strangers providing food, masks, and words of encouragement. But tens of thousands of deaths among our most vulnerable? Politicians suggesting that older people dying is an acceptable price to pay for economic recovery? As my late mother-in-law would have said: a shonda (disgrace)! We should all feel sick and ashamed, even as we fear for our own and our dear ones’ health and financial security.
When this pandemic is finally over, I pray that we will learn from this shameful chapter. We can honor the memories of those elders who died alone and afraid by adequately funding safe, quality long-term care for all Americans. Regulators can insist that nursing homes have plans and adequate resources for future pandemics.
More than this, though, I hope that we’ll be moved by this tragedy to work to end ageism. We must break down the isolation of elders, which breeds ageism. Instead, we must connect elders with children and younger people. We’ve got to learn from our elders, as did Dan Grunfeld, an NBC journalist who wrote about his 94 year-old Holocaust survivor grandmother’s advice for surviving quarantine, “…it is critical to be precise and disciplined. Act with caution. Listen to the experts. Don’t do anything to put yourself or others in jeopardy.” We need to tell the stories of the elders who died of COVID 19, and thereby, come to understand that each elder has a story and infinite value, and our society needs them.