How America Has Failed Our Aging Parents In This Pandemic

Whether you have older parents, grandparents or other loved ones of modest means, you have one thing in common in the U.S.—running out of money can force your loved one into a nursing home. The frightening truth about infection in nursing homes emerged almost immediately when we saw the first cases in the facility in Kirkland, Washington, with 37 Covid-19 deaths in four weeks.

Shouldn’t that have been a wake-up call? Why didn’t our government pay for and require testing of every resident? And testing of all nursing home staff? Why did regulators not isolate the infected folks from others to stop the virus from ravaging the many nursing homes across the country? It did not happen. If you had an aging parent in a nursing home, that person’s risk was higher than anyone else’s for a few obvious reasons. Elders who are already frail and need the sort of help that puts them in a nursing home in the first place are in danger from any kind of infection. This danger is increased dramatically from Covid-19 that spreads with rapidity from breathing, simply talking or coughing. Elders in nursing homes were and remain sitting ducks.

Staff who work there are nearly all dedicated and very willing to do hard work. I have shared it alongside these angelic folks. For the most part they receive low wages. Sometimes it is the only job they can get and they are grateful to have it. But being low income often means living in dense quarters where people are close together in a small dwelling. They go to work even when they may not be feeling well. Their nursing home employers may not have the means to test all on a regular basis for Covid-19, nor to question them each day about any symptoms. If one person gets infected at home from another with whom they live and that person goes to work at the nursing home, you can see how infection spreads so widely and so fast.

As I see it, the nursing home, with which I have first-hand experience as an RN who worked per diem (shift work) in a number of them, is a poor model for how to care for elders. No one wants to go to one. Has an aging parent made you promise “never put me in one of those homes”? Lots of adult children hear this and make that promise but find later that they can’t keep it. Care at home costs far too much and they can’t afford to stay at home.

As the pandemic worsens and more restrictions become necessary to keep more elders from exposure and infection, we feel the pain that elders suffer from ever more isolation. There is no way out of this right now! It saddens me, as the faces of those I cared for in those places are indelibly etched in my mind. The fear was there, the loneliness, the resignation to a fate they did not want. But there can be hope for the future. Here is what I see as possible.

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We don’t have to make places where elders live and are cared for look like hospitals. We don’t have to pack people two or three to a room with only a curtain separating them across the four foot space between beds. We can offer better models of living situations for low income folks. Better models already exist, but they are few and far between. And they cost more than the usual depressing way we build nursing homes.

We may not be able to do this right now, but going forward our Congressional representatives can pay attention and develop more humane policies based on the horrific toll the pandemic has taken on nursing home residents. Low income people need safer places to age with help at hand. It will cost taxpayer money. Our seniors deserve it.

In the meantime, political leaders assure us that after front line healthcare workers, nursing home residents will be among the first to receive the vaccine. Good. In case it doesn’t happen as promised for someone you know in a nursing home, raise your voice and demand it. After the shameful neglect by our government to stop a repeat of the devastation that first appeared in the nursing home in Kirkland, WA, this is the least we can do as a nation. We need every nursing home resident vaccinated as quickly as possible. And we need voices to convince lawmakers to learn from the mistakes our country has made in the pandemic and to change course for aging folks in nursing homes.

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