It is just three years ago, almost to the day, when COVID changed the world of elder care services forever. Of course, this global pandemic changed all of our lives. That is without question. There were so many lives lost, others who are still fighting the lingering effects and many more whose personal and professional lives were upended.
But my thoughts are specifically around the world of elder care and what this experience has meant. In March 2020, by government edict, elders who live in residential settings were subject to restrictions that, even in retrospect, seem unimaginable. Banning visitors, confining elders to their rooms and eliminating all communal dining or group activities was not just a recommendation. It was a mandate.
At no point did an elder ever have input into these restrictions. At no point did anyone with expertise not just in elder care, but in the care of human beings, question the impact such limitations might have. At no point was there consideration as to what loneliness, isolation and lack of socialization could and would do to older adults.
I understand it. I know my colleagues do as well. Safety was paramount. Time was short and information was woefully lacking. Protection outweighed choice or freedom and actions were rapid and sweeping. These were decisions based on logic in the heat of difficult circumstances.
But, as we stand here three years later, after those of us who work with elders (and many beyond our field) have lived through the darkest days of our personal and professional careers, one lesson is eminently clear. While we may have prevented some of the spread of the virus through these measures, we did immeasurable harm as well.
Loneliness is one of the leading causes of death in elders. It exacerbates medical conditions. It creates the breeding ground for weakness and depression and despair. Keeping elders confined was not just a possible “safety” measure, it was also a punishment. It diminished quality of life, despite our best efforts, and the time lost in isolation took a toll physically, emotionally and cognitively.
Families suffered as well, limited to FaceTime or phone, visits through windows or shouting up to their loved one from the parking lot below. The time lost was not benign and it was reflected in the decline many elders suffered both because of the sheer time and because of their lack of connection with those they loved.
Elders live in congregate settings to assist them with medical care, support, nutrition and, above all, socialization. Turing these settings into isolation zones was not just wrong, it was damaging. And it is the kind of damage that cannot be undone.
It is easy to forget what the darkest days of the pandemic were like. After all, most of us are back to whatever “normal” is for us. But for those of us who work with, care for or are concerned about older adults, we must hold fast to the memories of what transpired and must raise our voices, collectively and loudly, to ensure that this is never repeated.