The Covid-19 pandemic will be a wake-up call for America, advocates for the elderly predict: irrefutable evidence that the nation is not doing enough to care for frail older adults.
The death toll is staggering, as are reports of chaos in nursing homes and the elderly suffering from isolation, depression, untreated illness and neglect. Nearly 900,000 older adults have died of Covid-19 so far, accounting for 3 of every 4 Americans who have died in the pandemic.
But the decisive action that advocates had hoped for did not materialize. Today, most people – and government officials – seem to accept Covid as a part of normal life. Many seniors at high risk are not receiving antiviral therapy for Covid, and most older adults in nursing homes are not receiving updated vaccines. Efforts to strengthen the quality of care in nursing homes and assisted living centers have stalled amid debates over costs and staff availability. And despite new waves of Covid, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus infections hospitalizing and killing the elderly, only a small percentage of people are wearing masks or other precautions in public.
In the last week of 2023 and the first two weeks of 2024, 4,810 people age 65 and older lost their lives to Covid – a group that would fill more than 10 major airplanes – according to data provided by the CDC. But the warnings that might be present in a plane crash are notably absent. (During the same period, the flu killed an additional 1,201 veterans, and RSV killed 126.)
“It boggles my mind that there isn’t more outrage,” said Alice Bonner, 66, senior adviser on aging at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. “I’m at a point where I want to say, ‘What’s the point? Why aren’t people responding and doing more for the elderly?'”
That’s a good question. Do we simply not care?
I leave this big-picture question, which is rarely asked amid debates over budgets and policy, to health care professionals, researchers, and policymakers who have themselves spent years working in the field of aging and aging. Here are some of their responses.
The pandemic made things worse. Prejudice against older adults is nothing new, but “it seems more intense, more hostile now than ever,” said Carl Pillemer, 69, a professor of psychology and gerontology at Cornell University.
“I think the pandemic has helped reinforce the image of older people as sick, frail and isolated – people who are not like the rest of us,” she said. “And human nature being what it is, we tend to like people who are like us and have less of an attitude towards ‘others’.”
“A lot of us felt isolated and threatened during the pandemic. It made us sit there and think, ‘All I really care about is protecting myself, my wife, my brother, my kids and screw everyone else,'” ” said W. Andrew Achenbaum, 76, is the author of nine books on aging and a professor emeritus at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.
“It’s us against them” in an environment where everyone wants to blame someone else, Achenbaum continued, “Who is expendable? Older people who are not seen as productive, who are seen as scarce resources. It’s really hard to give to the old. When you have your own existence. When people panic about what they deserve.”
Although Covid continues to circulate, disproportionately affecting older adults, “people now think the crisis is over, and we have a deep desire to get back to normal,” said Edwin Walker, 67, who heads the Department of Health’s Administration on Aging and Human Services. . He spoke as an individual, not as a representative of the government.
The result is that “we haven’t learned the lessons we should have,” and the ageism that emerged during the pandemic hasn’t abated, he observed.
Ageism is rampant. “Everybody loves their own parents. But as a society, we don’t value older adults or the people who care for them,” said Robert Cramer, 74, co-founder and strategic adviser at the National Investment Center for Senior Housing and Care. .
Cramer thinks boomers are cutting back on what they own. “We’ve chased youth and glorified youth. When you spend billions of dollars on staying young, looking young, acting young, you create an automatic fear and prejudice to the contrary.”
Combine the fear of decline, decline and death that can accompany aging with the trauma and fear that arose during the pandemic, and “I think Covid has set us back on the progress we were making to address the needs of our rapidly aging society. “It has further stigmatized aging,” said John Rowe, 79, a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“The message for older adults is: ‘Your time is up, give up your seat at the table, stop consuming resources, read the line,'” said Ann Montgomery, 65, a health policy expert at the National Committee to Defend Social Security and Medicare. He believes, however, that baby boomers “can rewrite and flip that script if we want to and if we work to change systems that embody the values of a profoundly ageist society.”
Integration, not separation, is needed. The best way to overcome stigma is to “get to know the people you’re stigmatizing,” says G. Allen Power, 70, an aging expert and chair of aging and dementia innovation at the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging in Canada. . “But we separate ourselves from older people so we don’t have to think about our own aging and our own mortality.”
Solution: “We need to find ways to better integrate older adults into our society as opposed to relegating them to campuses where they are separated from the rest of us.” “We need to stop looking at older people only through the lens of what services they might need and think instead of what they have to offer society.”
This point is a key takeaway from the National Academy of Medicine’s 2022 report Global Roadmap for Healthy Longevity. Older people are a “natural resource” who “make important contributions to their families and communities,” the report’s authors wrote in presenting their findings.
These contributions include financial support to the family, caregiving support, volunteering and ongoing participation in the workforce, among other things.
“When older people thrive, all people thrive,” the report concludes.
Future generations will have their turn. It’s a message Kramer teaches at the University of Southern California, Cornell and other institutions. “You have a lot more at stake in changing the way you approach aging than I do,” he tells his students. “Statistically, you are much more likely to live to be 100 than I am. If you don’t change society’s view of aging, you will be condemned to lead the last third of your life in social, economic and cultural irrelevance.”
For himself and the baby boom generation, Cramer thinks it’s “too late” to affect the meaningful changes he hopes will come in the future.
“I suspect that things will get worse in the years ahead for people of my generation,” Pillemer said. “People are vastly underestimating what the cost of caring for the aging population is going to be over the next 10 to 20 years, and I think that’s going to cause increased conflict.”
Reprinted from this article khn.orgA national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of KFF’s core operating programs – the independent source for health policy research, polling and journalism.