Social distancing practices decrease the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, particularly for the elderly who, according to the Centers for Disease Control, are most at risk of death of any group from this infectious disease. Such public health precautions are unlikely to go away anytime soon.
But America’s seniors cannot live 6 feet apart from people until they are 6 feet under. They cannot be bound in bubble-wrap or kept in glass cases like Hummel figurines, deprived of meaningful interaction with those they love.
Their lives are meant to be filled with kisses and caresses, hugs and handshakes, pats-on-the-back from friends and high-fives from grandchildren. Instead, someone as intimate as a family member or distant as the person cutting their hair is now treated as a potential carrier of deadly contagion, to be avoided at all costs. Humans cannot live like this.
The social barriers now in place to isolate the elderly may decrease the number of hospitalizations and sudden deaths of the elderly, but they come at a steep price — encroaching loneliness and affection deprivation.
A world without hugs creates massive casualties of spirit. It kills what makes us all truly human, which Mother Teresa of Calcutta described as our capacity to love and be loved. She witnessed the primal need for companionship and connection of those living on society’s margins. We are witnessing that now as elders live, and die, unaccompanied.
How our country reconciles this longing for the warmth of human touch with the cold facts about the transmission of deadly illnesses is as daunting a challenge as reviving the economy. When America begins to travel, work, and publicly gather, older citizens likely will not enjoy this liberation from lockdown-living, especially the 2 million Americans residing in long-term care communities. As the tragic events in Richmond recently showed, one infection in a nursing home can trigger a deadly domino-effect.
Does that mean our elderly must live in solitary confinement indefinitely? No. Faith-based and community organizations are ideally suited to mobilize the growing ranks of Americans whose antibodies prove exposure to the virus or recovery from it. These survivors can be deputized as “first responders” to the cries for company emanating from shut-ins and care facility residents alike.
Programs to entertain and encourage the lonely, too, can be safely restarted as a bridge to the day when a vaccine or improved viral treatments allow greater interventions.
But what is urgently needed for high-functioning and dependent elderly alike is a meeting of the minds on mortality between them and their loved ones. Our seniors must have a game plan for their end days, and communicate it with those they love. There can be no peace of mind until everyone in the family is on the same page on everything from do-not-resuscitate orders, to hospice placement, to other end-of-life care topics.
Accepting the certainty of death, and planning for it, also allows a consideration of the trade-offs that attend re-entry into the world, bringing both reason and faith to bear on such deliberations.
Our organization has spent the last two decades promoting advance care planning and facilitating family discussions about life, death and end-of-life care, and millions have benefited. Those who have had these conversations are glad they did; those who haven’t often live to bitterly regret it.
While these conversations are not easy, they don’t have to bog down on questions about ventilators and feeding tubes. People are willing to talk about critical illness if the dialogue extends to questions of comfort, dignity and forgiveness, and how one wants to be remembered.
Our experience has shown that families are ultimately relieved to finally surface these subjects and deal with them. The peace of mind that follows helps both the elderly and their loved ones accept the natural limits of life and the preciousness of whatever time together remains.
In the age of the coronavirus, America’s seniors know best where on the spectrum between self-quarantine and free circulation in society they fall. They are acutely aware of their own mortality and how their behavior choices can accelerate or forestall the day they enter eternity.
The decisions they make are a great deal easier, and the risks they assume more palatable, if they know that the family and friends they will one day leave behind know precisely how they want to exit this life, and on what terms. This may be the best path toward getting our elders back into our lives, and if they’re willing, into our arms.
This commentary was originally published in the Orlando Sentinel on May 20, 2020. It is posted here with permission from author.