The pandemic has put an unsuspected brake on our fast-paced daily routine. It has stopped us in our tracks and forced us to face a sobering truth: the fragility of our lives.
Anyone can be exposed to the Covid-19, regardless of age, physical condition, social status, race, or where we live. Out in public, we are all at risk. We realize that the days are passing, and life is escaping us, with so many dreams and projects suspended by the global health crisis, in the midst of a shattered economy.
The good thing about thinking about the future is that the expectation of a healthy and productive life lengthens with the advancement of science, and if we survive the coronavirus, we will have more elders in the world. According to the World Health Organization, “between 2000 and 2050, the proportion of the planet’s inhabitants over the age of 60 will double, from 11% to 22%”.
This means that in 30 years senior citizens will add 2 billion people in the world. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 1 in 4 people will be over 60 in 2050, according to UN figures. Will we then be more vulnerable to future pandemics?
In Latin America, the family tradition of caring for and living with our grandparents saved thousands of elderly people from a tragedy – described as a “massacre” – like the one in Europe, the United States and Canada, where nursing home residents became the most exposed to contagion, due to their coexistence with many other people, away from the care of their loved ones.
The London School of Economics estimates that between 42% and 57% of Covid-19 deaths in Europe occurred in nursing homes in five countries: Italy, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, and France. As of April 14, at least 119,000 elderly deaths had been recorded, an amount that could be much higher.
Statistics in Canada also indicate that of the total deaths recorded by coronavirus, half occurred in nursing homes. In the United States the figure is equally terrifying. Of almost 90,000 deaths to date, a third, that is, more than 30,000 deaths correspond to residents and nursing home workers.
In a universe of 3 million senior citizens and the same number of workers in nursing homes in this country, analysts estimate that the death toll is cut short by incomplete reports and a lack of evidence to determine the cause of death of the elderly.
Drifting Nursing Homes
The data reflects a bleak picture in many of these care institutions where countless elderly people live who do not receive the best care and are subjected to deplorable conditions, cared for by poorly paid staff and, worst of all, with insufficient protection and supplies to respond to a health emergency of similar proportions.
We learned of nearly twenty corpses piled up in a nursing home in New Jersey. At another institution in the area, the bodies had to be stored in refrigerated trucks, while employees overwhelmed by the emergency took weeks to inform relatives of the elderly who had died of the coronavirus. The funeral homes could not cope either.
In other cases, dozens of older people were abandoned by nurses and staff at these homes for fear of contagion due to a lack of protective equipment, tests for the Covid-19 and cleaning supplies. In the early days of the pandemic crisis, governments concentrated on equipping hospitals and clinics first, leaving the elderly adrift.
In a nursing home near Montreal, apart from the dozens of deaths in a few weeks, pathetic conditions were discovered as patients were not fed for days, did not have their diapers changed or and received no assistance after falling on the floor.
The countless irregularities regarding the care given to grandparents revealed the absence of protocols to prevent infection. Even the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to send dozens of health officials from the Army to assist in nursing homes.
In the face of the scandal, they began to take corrective measures such as more tests and protection, and increased hygiene. Some workers were offered more money to sleep in the nursing homes to avoid a higher risk of contagion. In addition, visits by family and friends to the elderly were prohibited, a measure that still persists.
This isolation has plunged grandparents into loneliness and sadness, a situation that creates an unprecedented emotional burden for a population that has been robbed of their dignity and the possibility of spending the last days of their lives alongside what is most precious: their family.
The investigations and million-dollar lawsuits against these residences are accumulating in Europe and North America. In Latin America, as stated previously, the situation is very different. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), only 0.54% of adults over the age of 60 live in long-term care facilities. This equates to a total of 166,000 elderly. The figure rises to 20% of those over 80 who live alone.
Paradoxically, the state of underdevelopment that we experience in the region has been an advantage throughout the misfortunes caused by the pandemic. Specifically, the fact that a high percentage of grandparents live with their relatives (because they cannot pay an old age) has prevented deaths, such as those registered in developed countries. According to ECLAC, 1 in 4 Latin American households include a senior citizen.
In our region, poverty and economic precariousness are what afflict old age. A majority do not have access to a pension or, if they do have one, it is insufficient, which only worsens their situation. In many cases, they depend on their family’s income. The elderly often feel useless, because society does not consider them productive and denies their job opportunities, especially when they are over 60 years old.
Those who do not fend for themselves depend on their relatives, generally women, who in many cases have not received adequate training to assist the elderly and do not receive compensation for this work. Those who the capacity to hire people to help them with their mobility and health needs often do so in informal conditions and pay low wages.
The pandemic exacerbates the loneliness, poverty and depression of many senior citizens who live alone. Several have died isolated in their homes without receiving care. UN Secretary Antonio Guterres said that “the elderly have the same rights to life and health as everyone else.”
Therefore, it is important that family members and institutions increase the monitoring of older people who suffer from isolation, loss of their cognitive abilities, or restrictions on their mobility during quarantine.
When the elderly live with their family, it is essential that their relatives implement the protection measures when living with older persons. It is also important to have more specialized personnel to help grandparents who live alone in basic activities such as bathing, dressing, eating, assisting them in their essential purchases and medications, accompanying them in their physical activities, therapies, treatments and offering emotional support.
Nursing homes should be assisted by doctors and infection prevention specialists. This requires that our countries graduate thousands of gerontologists and nurses to cover the personnel deficit that exists in this sector. It is essential that these residences receive adequate funding from governments and non-profit organizations to recruit more trained professionals, who are well-paid, equipped with protective gear, and provided with sufficient coronavirus tests to keep their guard down and ensure contagion-free geriatric institutions.
We owe our appreciation to those workers who support the elderly in their homes or assistance and care centers. We have not exalted them enough. They are also risking their health and their lives, because they have been exposed to situations of great responsibility and stress that are emotionally devastating.
Institutions housing elderly people must adequately prepare for and implement containment protocols for what could be a new wave of infections, once economies reopen. We have an obligation to care for the elderly, especially those who live abandoned to their own fate and poverty, and to prevent them from being exposed to a highly contagious virus that spreads by chain reaction and that easily overpowers its weakest victim: our elders.
We should have already learned from the painful and tragic lessons that cost thousands and thousands of lives in developed countries. We owe our grandparents infinite gratitude. They dedicated their best years to taking care of us and helping our families. Now more than ever, it’s up to us. It is a moral imperative to reward them in the same way.