We are quickly approaching the four-year anniversary of the COVID shutdown of much of the world and the lockdown of older adults living in residential settings. Those of us who work with elders, or who have family members who were impacted by this lockdown, will not soon forget the experience. We had been, for more years than one could count, a setting in which life was lively, families were welcomed and encouraged to visit and participate, volunteers were plentiful, and programming was rich and abundant.
In the blink of an eye, by mandate, we closed our buildings and allowed no one, other than staff inside. We confined our elders to their rooms and brought them their food on a tray, three meals a day. Programming became virtual or, at best, hallway centered with elders in their doorways, safe distances apart. Family visits were either on the phone or computer or, often, conducted by shouting through or at windows. Staff were garbed in PPE from head to toe and tarps were hung in hallways to divide COVID areas from non-COVID areas.
Over the course of the last four years, COVID has not left us, as we had hoped it would, but it has evolved. Thankfully, due both to vaccines and the changes in the virus, the terrible illnesses are far less in evidence and most of those who do contract the virus now, at least in our setting, have either cold symptoms or are asymptomatic. For this we are profoundly grateful, there is no question of that.
Yet we still live within the confines of the early days of COVID. Some of that is, certainly, ongoing regulatory restriction. But more of it is our own anxiety, our own uncertainty, the fresh memory of the trauma we all shared.
I am not suggesting that we become cavalier about this virus or that it is no longer a public health issue. But what I am suggesting, and moving forward with, is an effort to normalize life for our older adults again. Many of us who work in, or manage, residential settings still limit families and activities. In our communities, we have encouraged families to visit and spend time. We have invited them to programs. And then, when they want to eat in a communal setting with their loved ones and other elders, we draw the line. We worry about the “what if” of whether they might bring the virus into our setting, we worry about the proximity to others besides their loved one, we worry about what could and might cause an outbreak at a time when we know that outbreaks are all too frequent.
At some point, I think that we need to draw a line in the sand. I think we need to let quality of life and the rights of our elders take precedence, as they have not and, frankly, as they should have. Throughout the COVID lockdown and far beyond, the human and civil rights of older adults were ignored, denied and trampled. It is time, past time, to remember that elders are people with rights and preferences. It is not time to pretend that COVID, and other viruses, don’t exist but it is time to stop clinging to excess safety and allowing older adults to live the lives to which they are entitled, to regain normalcy.