Imagine, if you will, being a fragile older adult whose health needs can only truly be met within the walls of a long term care organization. You are moved into a room, you have some of your favorite things and your pictures on the wall but it is still not home. Still, you make the best of it. You participate in activities, looking forward to concerts and discussion groups and exercise. You make friends with other elders and you have a small group of people you have meals with every day, talking about everything from the food to the weather. You even do volunteer work, continuing to reach out and help others and make a difference in the community. All that matters but what makes living in this place okay is the fact that where you live is near your daughter/son/grandchild and you see them frequently. Having weekly or even sometimes daily visits is what gives your life fullness and as soon as they leave you find yourself eagerly awaiting their return.
Now imagine what it would be like to be prohibited from seeing your loved ones for more than three months. Not because of anything that you or they did, not because they were away or ill but because you, as an elder in a residential care facility, were not allowed visitors. Beyond that, the activities you enjoyed with others, the meal times you shared with others, all of that was no longer allowed and you were told you had to stay in your room, that you were being kept safe by being kept on your own. And that there was no choice for you or for the facility because this was a regulation, these were the rules that had to be followed.
No one asked you, as an elder, what you think. No one consulted you or solicited your opinion or your input. This was imposed on you, and the place where you live, without any discussion. The doors to your home slammed solidly closed and you had no option but to comply. Even if you wanted to, your health and your age kept you from taking any real action, from staging any real rebellion.
This is the situation that elders who live in long term care and assisted living settings have been facing since the middle of March. I know that, in many places, the staff did the very best they could to ease the loneliness and break up the boredom. Our team made room visits, organized activities in hallways, spent countless hours facilitating virtual visits with the use of FaceTime or Skype. But no amount of staff effort takes the place of family. Even those with significant cognitive impairment recognize their loved ones long after the ability to speak their names has disappeared.
On Sunday June 21, elders in New Jersey facilities were given permission to see their families in scheduled outdoor visits. Within minutes of the announcement being made by the Governor, phones and emails were pouring into facilities asking to book these long-awaited visits. Elders were ready at the appointed time, waiting anxiously at the door, peering out to see if the person walking towards them was, indeed, their family member. One of our elders watched her son walking toward her. “I wish I could run to him.” She gazed down at herself in the wheelchair and said, a little sadly, “But I can’t run anymore.” I said to her “You are running in your heart.” And, indeed, she was. The emotions were so strong on all parts. Our elders were joyous and tearful and their families the same. Some family members saw changes in their loved ones, changes that were much more noticeable because of the months of enforced separation. In some cases, those three months were more than just 90 plus days, and what was lost cannot be recovered.
The COVID pandemic was certainly not something any of us predicted or planned. The understanding that elders were at heightened risk and the early deaths in a nursing home drove action on both a State and federal level. Was it the right action? Was it the wrong action? I don’t know but I do know that age should not strip away your rights, that age should not cause you to become disenfranchised and without a voice. Were there other ways to have done this that would have allowed elders to still have contact with their families and friends? Could things have been handled differently? We were all reacting to a crisis and we did what we needed to do. As we look to the future, whatever situations face us, we must fight harder for our elders to be respected and to have input, to remind our leaders that advanced age does not wipe away the ability to choose and the right to have our voices heard.