Pandemic Stirs Discussion About Society’s Attitudes Toward Elderly

Photo Credit: Tristan Le

The coronavirus pandemic has ignited discussion about many topics of concern over the past few months, from the economy to restrictions on church gatherings to worries about whether forthcoming vaccinations may become mandatory. Among the topics being discussed is how society treats the elderly.

A number of articles have expressed concern over “ageism” and a seeming devaluation of the aged in society, finding an indifference to the plight of those 50 and up, who are most likely to experience complications and die from the infection.

A 113-year-old woman in Spain, the oldest known survivor of the coronavirus, told reporters after she recovered from COVID-19 that she believes the pandemic exposed the lack of consideration toward the elderly.

“This pandemic has revealed that the elderly are the forgotten people in our society,” Maria Branyas told the Observer. “They have fought all their lives, sacrificed their time and their dreams for the quality of life today. They did not deserve to leave the world that way.”

“Reports that another nursing home has been devastated elicit little more than a sad shake of the head. As others have noted, imagine how differently we would react if the almost 30 percent death rate in a nursing home in Virginia happened at a children’s day-care center,” also wrote Peter Glick, a social sciences professor Lawrence University, along with psychologist Amy Cuddy, in an article published by the Boston Globe.

In encouraging followers to “have a heart,” pro-life writer Jonathon Van Maren shared a drawing of an elderly couple watching television with the words coming out of the screen, “Don’t worry. This virus only kills the elderly.” The couple then clutches each other in sadness.

However, in March, some did not find the “joke” phrase referring to the novel coronavirus as the “boomer remover” to be funny, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo came under criticism last month over a directive prohibiting nursing homes in the state from turning away coronavirus patients or those who are suspected of having the infection.

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The directive was later clarified to require hospitals to ensure that the patient tests negative before releasing them to the nursing home. The Associated Press estimates that 4,500 coronavirus patients have been sent to nursing homes in New York thus far.

The New York Post interviewed two women who both lost a parent at the Newfane Rehab and Health Care Center after a former COVID patient was admitted there from a local hospital.

“The carnage started in March, when hospitals inundated with COVID-19 patients insisted on clearing out elderly patients, even if they were still infected, and sending them to whatever nursing homes had empty beds,” Betsy McCaughey wrote. “To swing that, they had to get rid of a safety regulation requiring patients to test negative twice for COVID-19 before being placed in a home.”

The outlet estimates that between 11K and 12K nursing home and assisted living residents have died in New York due to the virus, although the State’s figures are much lower — with about 3K confirmed COVID cases and another 3K suspected cases.

It was a nursing home in Washington State — Life Care Center in Kirkland — that was first hit by the coronavirus in March, with 129 people falling ill and 37 deaths. The facility was fined more than $600K over the matter, and the daughter of one resident who died from the coronavirus has filed suit.

Further, numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent this weekend to governors nationwide total nearly 26K COVID nursing home deaths — while acknowledging that the actual figures may be even higher.

The United Nations released a policy brief last month urging society not to treat the elderly as invisible but to care about how the pandemic has affected their lives as well.

“For the many millions of older persons who live in care facilities, physical distancing measures that restrict visitors and group activities can negatively affect the physical and mental health and well-being of older persons, particularly those with cognitive decline or dementia, and who are highly care-dependent,” it wrote.

“Older persons may also be unable to access services, such as telemedicine or online shopping and banking during the time of lockdown and physical distancing,” the document outlined.

It additionally lamented that “[a]t a time when more solidarity is needed, COVID-19 is escalating entrenched ageism, including age-based discrimination and stigmatization of older persons. It is worrying that remarks and hate speech targeting older persons have emerged in public discourse and on social media as expressions of inter-generational resentment.”

A coalition of professors from Canada, Belgium and France similarly released a paper in April that poses the question: “Ageism and COVID-19: what does our society’s response say about us?”

The elderly “are a source of generational knowledge and wisdom, they contribute to the workforce in increasing numbers, they volunteer and they are key to the strength of our economies and our families. We cannot afford to be careless about these lost lives because of ageist attitudes,” it stated. “We need to consider what we stand to lose if we let ageism influence how we discuss and treat older adults during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The organization Focus on the Family also published an article about teaching youth to respect the elderly, pointing to Leviticus 19:32, which declares, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord.”

“Let’s all remember that the elderly are to be revered by those younger than themselves and to be appreciated for having lived a long life. As expressed in Proverbs 16:31, ‘Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life,'” wrote Joannie DeBrito, the director of Parenting and Youth.

“Sadly, respect for the elderly is sometimes in short supply in today’s youth-oriented culture,” she lamented. “Because they may be slowing down and having more difficulty moving around, there is an assumption that what elderly people have to offer is also in short supply. On the contrary, they have the most to contribute because of the number of years spent on this Earth.”

DeBrito also noted that in standing for the sanctity of life, sometimes it is forgotten that every human is a precious gift from God, no matter what their age.

“So we need to embrace the elderly, to learn from them, and to care for them as needed, in order to show them the respect they deserve,” DeBrito stated.

“[E]mbrace and respect your elderly family members and friends, and help your children do the same, as we all struggle through this health crisis together,” she urged. “Look to them for comfort and seek to serve them. Both of these actions will benefit you and the elders in your life and more importantly, will glorify the Lord.”

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