Since the onset of the pandemic, no group has been more systematically isolated from the public square than our elderly. Because they are most at risk of hospitalization and death, they have borne the brunt of governmental directives on quarantining and other social limitations. While there are good intentions and science behind these mandates, their effects on the mental health of those they seek to protect, have been punishing.
I realized how sweeping these social changes have become when I was at Mass last Sunday. A year ago, every Catholic church was populated with senior citizens. They traditionally have been the backbone of most faith-based congregations. But not these days. When I looked around the church Sunday, there was only a handful of elders present, as if they were Mass crashers!
Very little attention is being focused on the social determinants of health for those paying the steepest price for Covid-19. The decline in the quality of life for elders has been dramatic. Loneliness, depression, and despair are, to use the terms of national and social media, “surging” and “spiking” among the most dependent among us – with little public attention. The message has been sent and delivered to society-at-large: everyone stay away from the elderly; and elderly, stay away from everyone. Even though mandatory mask and social distancing orders are in place, and good hygiene practices are taking root in society, government officials are further tightening down on exactly where the elderly are welcome. And in the case of seniors who are not living with their immediate family, they seem to be under a “stay away from Thanksgiving” order.
The Governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, and his team of health experts, have advised against traditional holiday gatherings this week, urging people not to travel, gather with others not living under the same roof, or have more than 10 at table. Even though wearing a mask and practicing good hygiene and social distancing were supposed to nearly prohibit the spread of Covid-19, Vermont’s political leadership now believes those prophylactics aren’t enough. Utah’s governor Gary Herbert recently, and I would say commendably, softened his Vermont-like “household only” guidance to allow relatives and friends to gather. He said “nobody has an explanation” for why cases in his state are increasing as restrictions increase.
Reasonable people can disagree on whether these advisories (which tend to become normative in governing citizen behavior), or even mandatory measures, are necessary, and also, whether they will succeed in reducing the number of infections.
But what is abundantly clear is that our elderly and disabled are suffering mightily in this Covid-19 age. Some have been separated from their spouses in the hour of death, or not allowed to attend the funeral that follows; others have been excluded from any outings outside their facilities; and still others have been made to feel unwelcome if they venture out in public places. One could argue that Covid-19 has stigmatized the lives of many of our elderly, disabled and mentally ill, when the truth is, they are a gift to us, not a burden, not an object to be avoided at all costs.
We have much to be grateful for at Thanksgiving, beginning with them. They remind us of our common humanity and the covenant among the generations that undergirds healthy civic life. They need our love and attention. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that we “were made for great things – to love and to be loved.” This is particularly true at both ends of life’s spectrum.
This Thanksgiving, when you bow your head in prayer, say a prayer of thanks for our elderly, disabled and mentally ill – particularly with those who have no one. Commit yourself to concrete steps you can take to show them that you love them. And resolve that as the Covid-19 vaccine becomes available, all of the barriers government officials have put in place to isolate them come down immediately.