“If our greatest misery is sickness, its greatest misery is solitude. Fear of contagion daunts the helpers I need, and even the physician hesitates to visit. As a result, I lie here alone, isolated, a torture that hell itself does not threaten…A long sickness will weary the best of friends, but an epidemic wards them off from the outset. To patients like me, it seems a kind of prison sentence, separating us from both companionship and charity.”
You might think these stirring words were penned recently by a Covid-19 victim. In fact, the great poet John Donne wrote them during the Great Plague of the 17th century. Donne did not have the dreaded disease that felled a third of his fellow countrymen in London. But his insights at the time seem, well, timely.
The systems now in place to deal with the 1.25 million nursing home residents and approximately one million more living in senior living communities, have imposed an unbearable sense of solitude upon the elderly and disabled in those facilities. Visitors are not permitted to enter the rooms of their loved ones, and under most state edicts, family members aren’t even allowed past the reception desk.
While I have written at length about the inhumanity of the current policies now in place for senior citizens locked down in long term care residential homes, and those that prohibit family members from accompanying the dying, there is another group who is paying a steep price for the quarantine measures – the workers in these facilities.
You probably have seen signs lining the roadways in front of care facilities that say, “Heroes Work Here,” or something to that effect. These words ring true. Nurses and doctors, their certified assistants and those running the business and food service operations, have responded heroically to a year of Covid challenges. They, too, have had to deal with restrictions – not only on the premises of the care facilities, but in their private lives, after work. Often their employers do not permit them to travel distances of any length, or congregate with family or friends, so as to minimize the risk of carrying the coronavirus back into the institutions where they work. These brave men and women had to forgo the felicitations of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other social gatherings. Many long-term care workers have left their jobs because of such deprivations, further burdening their colleagues left behind.
I recently helped a close friend transition from an in-patient rehabilitation center to an assisted living facility. I met some of the people working there who made this essential transfer possible, for without their helping hands, my friend would have had no place to turn for his recovery, no meals prepared for him to eat, and no room properly sanitized in which to recuperate. The work force employed in nursing homes and assisted living is not typically compensated much for their services. It is as if the signs out front should say, “Heroes Work Here for Barely More Than Minimum Wage.” I am sure what I am writing could also apply to the legions who have worked in our nation’s hospitals, rehab clinics, and physician offices during the pandemic.
Congress should not send to the desk of President Biden any relief measure that does not provide the equivalent of “combat pay” for the front-line folks who protect and provide for those Americans who are most in need and most at risk of a fatal infection. Their pay should be adjusted to reflect all that they have sacrificed this past year. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being allocated in versions of House and Senate spending bills for schools that have been closed and teachers who have been out of the classroom. What about the long-term and health care workers who have remained on the job throughout the pandemic?
As I saw this past weekend at Chesterbrook Residences in Falls Church, Virginia, these men and women are the sole source of company and compassion for the millions of Americans who live at our mercy and face a “torture that hell itself does not threaten.” God bless our heroes who are ministering the companionship and charity our locked-down seniors desperately need!