Senior advocates predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will serve as a wake-up call for the United States: indisputable evidence that the country is not doing enough to care for vulnerable seniors.
The death toll is shocking, with reports of chaos in nursing homes and elderly people suffering from isolation, depression, untreated illness and neglect. About 900,000 older adults have died from covid-19 so far, accounting for three-quarters of the Americans who have died in the pandemic.
But the decisive action advocates hoped for has yet to materialize. Today, most people and government officials seem to accept COVID-19 as part of daily life. Many at-risk seniors are not receiving COVID-19 antiviral treatment, and most seniors in nursing homes have not received newer vaccines. Efforts to improve the quality of care in nursing homes and assisted living centers have stalled amid debates over costs and staffing. Even as new waves of coronavirus, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus infections result in hospitalizations and deaths among older adults, only a small proportion of the population is wearing masks or taking other precautions in public.
According to data provided by the CDC, 4,810 people aged 65 and older died from the coronavirus in the last week of 2023 and the first two weeks of 2024 alone, a number equivalent to the number of passengers on more than 10 large passenger planes. But a warning in the event of a plane crash was conspicuously missing. (Influenza killed another 1,201 older adults during the same period, and RSV killed 126.)
“It’s unbelievable to me that there’s not more outrage,” said Alice Bonner, 66, senior adviser on aging at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. “I’m now like, ‘What the hell? Why aren’t people responding and doing more for seniors?'”
This is a good question. Don’t we care at all?
I asked this macro question, rarely asked in budget and policy debates, to health care professionals, researchers, and policymakers who are themselves older and have spent years working in the aging field. Here are some of their responses.
The pandemic has made things worse. Karl Pillemer, 69, a professor of psychology and gerontology at Cornell University, said prejudice against older people is nothing new, but it “feels stronger and more hostile” now than before.
“I think the pandemic has reinforced the image of older people as sick, frail and isolated as different from the rest of us,” he said. “Human nature being what it is, we tend to like people who are similar to us, and to ‘ Others’ were less friendly.”
“During the pandemic, a lot of us feel isolated and threatened. It makes us sit there and think, ‘What I really care about is protecting myself, my wife, my brother, my kids, and then putting everyone else It’s all screwed up,'” said W. Andrew Achenbaum, 76, author of nine books on aging and aging issues. Professor Emeritus at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.
In an “us versus them” environment, everyone wants to blame someone, Achenbaum continued, “who is expendable? Older people are considered less productive, and the resources they consume are considered to be in short supply.” It’s really hard to give older people the respect they deserve when you’re terrified of your own existence.”
While the coronavirus continues to spread, disproportionately affecting older adults, “people now think the crisis is over and we’re eager to get back to normal,” said Edwin H.H., 67, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging Edwin Walker said. Human services. He spoke as an individual and not as a government representative.
The result, he noted, is that “we haven’t learned the lessons we should have learned” and that ageism has not abated during the pandemic.
Age discrimination is widespread. “Everyone loves their parents. But as a society, we don’t value seniors or the people who care for them,” said Robert Cramer, 74, co-founder and strategic advisor of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care Robert Kramer) said.
Cramer believes the baby boomers are reaping the consequences. “We chase and glorify youth. When you spend billions of dollars trying to stay young, look young, and act young, you automatically create fears and prejudices against the opposite.”
“I think COVID-19 has set back any progress we’ve made in meeting the needs of a rapidly aging society.” It further stigmatizes aging,” said John Rowe, 79, a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“Our message to seniors is: ‘Your time has passed, give up your seat, stop draining resources and follow the rules,'” said Anne Montgomery, 65, a health policy expert at the National Council for the Defense of Social Security. .'” and Medicare. She believes, however, that baby boomers can “rewrite and flip the script, if we choose, if we work to change systems that embody deeply ageist social values.”
What is needed is integration, not separation. The best way to overcome stigma is to “understand the person you’re insulting,” said G. Allen Power, 70, a geriatrician and innovation chair in aging and dementia at the Schlegel Institute on Aging at the University of Waterloo in Canada. . . “But we separate ourselves from the elderly so that we don’t have to think about our own aging and death.”
Solution: “We have to find ways to better integrate seniors into the community rather than moving them to campuses that are separate from the rest of us,” Ball said. “We need to stop looking at older people and thinking only through the lens of what services they may need, rather than all they have to offer society.”
This is a core principle of the National Academy of Medicine’s 2022 report “Global Roadmap to Healthy and Longevity.” Introducing their findings, the report’s authors wrote that older people are a “natural resource” who “make significant contributions to their families and communities.”
These contributions include financial support for families, care assistance, volunteering and continued participation in the workforce.
“When older people thrive, everyone thrives,” the report concludes.
Future generations will have their turn. That’s the message Kramer delivers in courses he teaches at USC, Cornell University and other institutions. “You have a much greater stake in changing the way we deal with aging than I do,” he told the students. “Statistically, you have a much greater chance of living past 100 than I do. If you don’t change society Attitude to aging and you will be doomed to spend the last third of your life socially, economically and culturally irrelevant.”
As for himself and the baby boomers, Cramer thinks it’s “too late” to achieve the meaningful changes he hopes the future will bring.
“I suspect things are likely to get worse for our generation in the coming years,” Pillemer said. “People are vastly underestimating the cost of caring for older people over the next 10 to 20 years, and I think that’s going to lead to increased conflict.”
KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of KFF’s core operating programs – an independent source of health policy research, polling and news. Learn more about KFF.
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