There have been a lot of “firsts” forced upon us by life in a COVID world. We’ve had holidays and birthdays on Zoom. Our normal weekend times with our kids, grandkids and friends have become FaceTime opportunities. And, meetings, from board meetings to internal staff meetings, have been conducted in front of the computer. I suspect that, even when life “reopens” again, many of these online practices will remain in place, something that just becomes a part of the way we live our lives and the way we do business.
But while virtual works for a lot of things, it certainly does not work in the world of elder care. Every day I have the opportunity to see caregivers find ways to interact with elders that go far beyond just meeting their physical needs. Keeping individuals engaged, helping them find ways to live meaningful lives, taking the time to listen and share a quiet moment, all of these require real people with real hands and real hearts.
It has not been an easy time to be in elder care and that may be the understatement of the decade if not the century. Older adults continue to be among the most vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus and the risk of death rises for individuals over 70 and even more for those over 80. We have watched elders, as well as staff members, become ill with this insidious and treacherous virus. We have marshalled all of our resources, creativity and fight to help elders survive and many did although, sadly, not all. With each loss we have said goodbye to a treasured friend, a member of our extended family.
Add to that the negative portrayal of elder care in the media, especially nursing homes. One would think that nursing homes created the pandemic, responsible for the illness and death that have resulted. That is just not the truth. Some of our staff have had challenges in their personal lives because of what they do—the babysitter who refuses to watch their children because Mom works in a nursing home; the medical office that says you can have an appointment before office hours, not for your convenience but because they don’t want you (as a nursing home employee) around their other patients.
Despite the challenges, these caregivers have not wavered in their dedication and commitment. They have come to work, donned whatever PPE was necessary, and proceeded to do not just the work of care but also the work of caring. Without access to families, with doors closed to volunteers, the staff have taken on expanded roles in the lives of our elders. And they have done so willingly, without being asked, understanding and doing that which needed to be done.
You can’t phone in reassurance, you can’t virtually hold a hand or make meaningful eye contact without being present. You can’t sit by a bedside or push a wheelchair outside and share some moments of sunshine via computer. We know what compassion is, we know what commitment is and we see it every day and there is no virtual substitute for real care in a very real world.