Last week, we celebrated Purim across our organization. It’s the holiday that seems to bring joy to our staff and the elders we serve alike. We dress in costumes, decorate lavishly, enjoy Purim feasts along with Purim plays and, of course, make and consume delicious hamantaschen in abundance.
Purim 2022 was more than the lively holiday we all know. It was a moment to reflect and remember. The last big event that we had as an organization, with our elders and staff gathered and laughing together, was Purim 2020. While we were preparing (as best we could at that time) for a virus we prayed would not hit us, our holiday looked much like it always does.
Days later the world completely changed for us. We went from collective connection and enjoyment to isolation and lockdown. The mandate had been issued, elders were to be kept strictly in their rooms. There were to be no group programs, no group dining and, worst of all, no visiting. From March until late June, visiting was confined to window visits and virtual visits and the sight of family members standing outside and calling out to their loved ones at their second floor windows is not one any of us will soon forget.
Our elders, especially those who live in residential settings, were imprisoned in facilities designed and dedicated to their care. That one priority, safety, was the only one that seemed to matter to those in power on the State and federal levels. Quality of life, engagement, socialization, family involvement—none of it was considered and neither was, even for a moment, elder choice. The elders had no voice and no say and the thought that they should, that they, too, have rights was never mentioned.
When I spoke to our elders on Purim, I talked about the gift of being together again. I reminded them that it has been two years since our last opportunity to be freely together (albeit today wearing surgical masks). And I watched the faces, I saw the heads nodding and, more than that, I saw the pain of the last 24 months reflected in their eyes. At any stage of life, two years is a loss. But for our elders, two years has seen their conditions change, two years have prevented families from providing the comfort that was so desperately needed, two years have seen grandchildren and great-grandchildren born but not held, often seen only through a window. Two years that none of us will get back.
I cannot help but think about the “what if” scenarios. While I know we are far better prepared for whatever lies ahead than we were in March 2020, what protection would our elders have? Who will fight for their rights or even consider them? Who will recognize the damage done to them and keep it from happening again? Who will remind those in positions of power that chronological age, or living in residential housing, does not strip people of their humanity and allow them to be treated as if they don’t matter, as if they don’t exist?
We are moving forward and for that we are grateful. Of course, our hope is that we never again have to face a pandemic, never again have to live with the anxiety, the fear and the loss of health and life. But if that day does arise, let us raise our voices to protect our elders—not just with safety but with life in its fullest sense.