A Revolution in Care for Our Elderly

(Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters)
Will Andrew Cuomo inadvertently spark a revolution in elder care? We must make it so.

Every once in a while, New York governor Andrew Cuomo says something I absolutely agree with. At the beginning of the pandemic, he went on and on about how every human life matters. I prayed: If he means this, maybe we can get somewhere in our politics. And it wasn’t an extremely crazy thought. As it happens, with all the death this year, my friends at the Sisters of Life tell me that some pregnant women are rejecting abortion because the last thing we need is more death.

Wouldn’t a newfound commitment to protecting human life be something healthy to come from this COVID-19 ordeal? But we seemed to be going in the opposite direction: Women were having abortions even while many patients put cancer treatments on hold. Residents in nursing homes were treated by the government as some sort of collateral damage, reflective of the West’s slouch toward assisted suicide for those who are no longer productive and convenient. This is the throwaway society that Pope Francis frequently talks about.

Cuomo’s choice to spend time with his mother on Thanksgiving was another one of those times he showed the right instinct, even as he was called out for the obvious hypocrisy, based on his edict that everyone should stay in place for the holiday. As with the phrase “social distancing,” the concept of putting off Thanksgiving for a year is not the way to live. Absolutely do the six-feet-apart thing and take precautions, but the pandemic should be a time to bring us closer together in other ways. And we’re not guaranteed another hour, never mind next Thanksgiving.

The Associated Press recently shone a light on Americans dying in nursing homes from neglect. “As more than 90,000 of the nation’s long-term care residents have died in a pandemic that has pushed staffs to the limit, advocates for the elderly say a tandem wave of death separate from the virus has quietly claimed tens of thousands more, often because overburdened workers haven’t been able to give them the care they need.” Their estimate is that in 15,000 facilities, “for every two COVID-19 victims in long-term care, there is another who died prematurely of other causes. Those ‘excess deaths’ beyond the normal rate of fatalities in nursing homes could total more than 40,000 since March.”

Forty thousand people? Even one is too much.

It told the story of a man named Donald Wallace who never contracted COVID-19, but he died a terribly slow death all the same. “Hale and happy before the pandemic, the 75-year-old retired Alabama truck driver became so malnourished and dehydrated that he dropped to 98 pounds and looked to his son like he’d been in a concentration camp.” Septic shock. He wasn’t cared for in the most basic of ways. And he likely choked on his food, not getting basic, again, help that he needed to eat. His son said: “He couldn’t even hold his head up straight because he had gotten so weak. . . . They stopped taking care of him. They abandoned him.”

We certainly have to acknowledge — as all the lawn signs and 7 p.m. noisemaking have made clear — that the people on the front lines of this pandemic have been faced with some impossible challenges this year. And nursing homes are not hospitals; they lack the equipment that would give them even a fighting chance against the virus. God bless the people who have been doing this work as well as they can.

If anything constructive comes from the agony of this year in nursing homes, could it be that we reconsider how we treat older Americans? We tend to be a people of exploration. And yet, perhaps it is good to have a place called home. Community matters — hasn’t that been one of the lessons of this year? I think of young people I know who went back to their parents this year, giving up their apartments in the big city. Their goal in life isn’t to live in their parents’ basement, but that’s also not the worst place to be. When hard times come, you need people who have some kind of natural commitment to you.

It is unconscionable that there has not been an independent investigation into what went wrong in the nursing homes in New York State, especially the impact that the governor’s orders had. Of course, maybe, as in the fog of war, it would be impossible to reconstruct. Still, we should try.

Andrew Cuomo has something right in his obvious love for his family. What we do know is that in this year of death, inadvertently, he gives us a reason to pause. How can we stop what is essentially the warehousing of older men and women? The situation becomes impossible in certain circumstances. The Little Sisters of the Poor, whom you may know from their Supreme Court wins, care for the elderly poor in their homes. (And if we learned anything this year, it is that we are all poor — vulnerable — in some way.) They agonized, because they could not be the familiar community of love and fellowship and prayer in the same way with their residents. How can we love better in familial communities? That has to be one of the challenges we take from the coronavirus.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association