We are publicly wrestling with what level of elderly attrition, to put it politely, we will tolerate in order to boost the economy, even as COVID-19 has exposed nursing homes as death traps, accounting for more than 26,000 U.S. deaths.
A couple of long months ago, when the “re-open” debate was new (and less nuanced), I grappled with a question: How can so many of my fellow conservatives be willing to sacrifice human lives for economic gain? Isn’t that, after all, one of the reasons women cite for getting abortions—because the economic burden that could come from “choosing life” is too great?
How, for example, is it possible to advocate a culture of life, while prioritizing personal comfort and inviting the tag “Grandma killer”?
“We have prevailed,” Donald Trump declared on Monday, when the confirmed death count was 80,653 and rising. Days earlier, in his visit to the mask factory where he didn’t wear a mask, he’d said enough, already, with the life-or-death concerns: “I’m not saying anything is perfect, and yes, will some people be affected, yes, will some people be affected badly—yes, but we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
Yes, life involves inherent risk, and yes, governmental decisions do, to a certain extent, reflect those actuarial realities (even as we seek to mitigate such risk). But far too many Republicans have been cavalier when talking about those trade-offs. Amongst progressives, too, we find the derision, resentment, and ageism as was revealed in the “OK, Boomer” phenomenon.
As I write this, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has finally reversed his disastrous decision to order nursing homes and long-term care facilities to take coronavirus patients released from hospitals.
When you consider that New York has more than 100,000 people in nursing homes—at least 5,300 have already died in them—and that 85 percent of COVID deaths in the state are estimated to be of people over 60, you get a sense of how insane this was.
Rhetorically, at least, Cuomo has been good on this issue, insisting that his mom is “not expendable.”
But just as many Republicans haven’t consistently extended their concerns about the unborn child to the vulnerable elderly, modern Democrats have hardly been champions of this vulnerable community.
“We’ve known for decades how much abuse and neglect takes place at nursing homes. And about how little nursing home workers get paid and how understaffed they are. But I’ve almost never seen this come up as a significant issue of social justice on the left,” says Fordham professor Charles Camosy, a former Democrats for Life of America board member, and the author of Resisting Throwaway Culture.
Indeed, as Camosy argues, one could imagine this issue would fit neatly in an “intersectional framework.” Immigrants do a disproportionate amount of the work in nursing homes. Nearly half of all residents have Alzheimer’s or other cognitive disability. We treat this population differently, on the basis of their age. The injustices found in our nursing homes are, in some ways, tailor-made for activism from the progressive left.
On one hand, this contemptuous attitude doesn’t make much sense—not least because older people are the voting bloc most likely to show up on election day. On the other hand, the marginalization of older Americans fits well with an ethos which worships youth and productivity. We push decline and death far away from our personal and social consciousness.
Religious traditions seek to resist this impulse, but it is not surprising that an increasingly secular society finds it difficult to imagine that we have unchosen obligations to “honor thy father and mother”—especially when they get in the way of our autonomy, choices, and lifestyles.
On top of that, a dog-eat-dog, pre-COVID consumerist economy that demanded most moms and dads both work to make ends meet didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for taking care of older family members who needed full-time attention, either.
That’s the bad news. The good news is this: Just as both sides of the political spectrum have been largely AWOL, it’s increasingly possible to imagine a new populist, bipartisan coalition embracing these problems.
Why couldn’t Josh Hawley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren and Tucker Carlson all champion some practical reforms to address both the pressing and the underlying cultural and economic problems?
Should we try harder to keep our aging parents at home with us? Should we at least pay nursing home staff more? Have we unwisely created an economic system where everyone has to work, so nobody is left to care for our elderly? Should we have a robust system of inspecting nursing homes to prevent and punish elder abuse? Have we become a consumeristic society that discards inconvenient people? These questions range from cultural paradigm shift to band-aid, and skew from bleeding-heart liberal to culture-of-life conservative. But these are all questions we should at least be asking.
Perhaps the time has come where people who care about the vulnerable unite and at least consider the possibility that we have created a very unhealthy and unnatural process for handling our elderly. And it's a system that is only going to get more taxed by aging Baby Boomers—followed by a generation of Americans often without children to care for them.
I know that in many ways, this is the golden age for the golden years, with older Americans holding outsized economic and political power. A septuagenarian will most certainly be elected (or re-elected) president. We shouldn’t let this historical anomaly distract us from the plight of those who have drifted across the line from being useful, to being inconvenient. To being old and in the way. To being the takers, not the makers, as someone once put it.
Coronavirus has exposed some of our most vulnerable Americans to a deadly virus, even as it has exposed our own hypocrisy and inhumanity. Our elder care system has long been broken. Maybe COVID-19 will be the spark that finally forces us to fix it.