The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought to center stage the inadequate systems to support elderly during their twilight years on the earth. What is reasonably expected to be a time of joy and rest, even if accompanied by health challenges, is now fraught with layer upon layer of fear.
Long-term care facilities, once considered a sensible option for the aging and the families who care for them, are now notorious for high rates of COVID-19 transmission and death. Even now, when we no longer have to vie for access to vaccine doses, 34 percent of health care workers in nursing home settings in Minnesota are unvaccinated.
The U.S. Census reports that one in five Americans — or 20 percent — will be 65 years old and over by 2030. Just two years ago that same demographic was at 16.5 percent. A 2018 AARP study shows that most adults (a full 75 percent) over age 50 want to age in their respective home and community, yet far fewer anticipate that will be an option. Meanwhile, the Delta variant rages and the CDC reports that 56 percent of adults over the age of 65 have two or more chronic conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, cancer or arthritis. It’s unnecessary to point out the increased vulnerability for these more than 18 million people, but I will anyway.
Families have struggled to keep their own employment, be sure their children learn and play in safe ways, and care for their elders at a distance even if they are down the street. There are beautiful anecdotes about creative gatherings during the pandemic. I passed by two women facilitating bingo from the ground to several floors of a nursing home in my neighborhood. At
the same time, too many of our elders died of loneliness and were confused about why no one was visiting them, accelerating issues of dementia and emotional suffering.
We know that women in particular left the workforce in large numbers to care for children during the height of the pandemic. During so-called normal times, women spend an average of seven years out of the workforce to care for children and aging parents. Predictably, this results in significantly less earnings — along with social security benefits and retirement savings — than for men. There is not yet a trend in employers honoring that time “away” as the true and legitimate contribution it is to our country. Instead, there is a questionable gap on the resume and a less secure future.
As a society, we say that we value elders. We say that we value caregivers. But the numbers tell a different story. One week as a caregiver would convey the point to any skeptic. Even those who plan meticulously for their older years will find themselves overwhelmed by the health care system, managing medications and appointments, reducing risks in the home, and adapting to a global pandemic. I haven’t even touched on the deeply human reluctance to accept a changing mind and body and the insidious loss of freedom.
Over 34 million Americans provided unpaid care to adults over 50 years in 2015. Most of them incurred related expenses averaging over $7,000. Three quarters of them were women and spent twice as much time doing it as their male counterparts. This is most often done with complete love, but also out of necessity. After all, who else is going to do it? There is no nonprofit organization that will swoop in to help my rural-residing parents manage health care logistics or figure out why the oxygen machine battery isn’t properly charging or transport them to key treatments and medical interventions or advocate, advocate, advocate.
And really, there doesn’t need to be a nonprofit. What we desperately need is a culture that lives out its stated values of honoring the elderly. There is something deeply flawed in our country that we provide increased unemployment benefits to restaurant workers, for example, but do not compensate in meaningful ways those who sacrifice earnings, professional advancement and personal well-being to care for the most fragile among us.
An attorney friend once told me that you only need two things to write good policy: the will and a pencil. We already have a caregiver corps and they are hard at work ensuring elderly live with the dignity they deserve. My question is whether the rest of us have the will to pull out a piece of paper and start writing a new story.
Kristi Rendahl is associate professor and director of the Nonprofit Leadership Program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
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