For the past few months, hardly a day goes by that I’m not grateful that my mother died last August. I miss her, of course, but if she were still alive she would be sequestered in her apartment at the senior facility where she lived for the last three years of her life. Without visits from her children and grandchildren, and suffering from moderate dementia, her suffering would have been immense.
Even without the pandemic and lockdown, many seniors are isolated. Even those who, like my mother, lived in senior living facilities have to endure loneliness. Although there are plenty of opportunities for social interaction—dining with other residents, participating in yoga and art classes, going to the occasional concert—they are still isolated from the rest of the world. Visits with family or friends are the only ties to the outside world. When that is cut off, as it has during this pandemic, life can become very empty.
Many people are suffering during this time, but I feel most strongly for the frail elderly, who not only have live with the fear of COVID-19 but must endure the “ordinary” health issues of aging—including arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer’s—while suffering silently in their apartments and rooms, with little or no escape from their confinement.
Yet I know that within these institutions are people who care, because I’ve met them—the ones who took care of my mother in the last years of her life—Karla, Maribel, Anna and others. These care workers know that if they don’t show up for work, the people they care for will be alone, won’t have proper meals, won’t remember to take their medicine, or, worse, won’t have any human contact during this pandemic in which residents at these senior facilities aren’t allowed out of their rooms.
Yet these workers—mostly women—are underpaid and overworked. Many come from other countries—particularly Latin America—and support their families on meager salaries. They are treated callously by the companies they worked for: given split shifts and difficult hours. There’s no reason that they should feel anything but obligation toward the people—mostly white women—they tend, yet they show a caring—even love—that goes beyond any contractual obligation.
Many people have praised—and rightly so—the heroism of the first responders—doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers—yet at least they are rewarded financially for what they do plus are praised by a grateful public. But I think of all those who labor unseen—who persevere in the virtual darkness of our senior homes. I read recently that almost as many caregivers in senior facilities are testing positive for COVID-19 as are the people they take care of, yet they remain invisible and their valiant efforts mostly ignored.
At risk here are two classes of what society considers disposable: the elderly and those who take care of them. I can’t begin to fix the suffering and injustice. All I can do is say a silent prayer for both groups—for those who suffer alone and those who offer what support they can.
Thanks for this, Kathy. My sister, Janet, does exactly this kind of caring work in south-central France. She told me that after several weeks of a strict no-visitors policy, her facility allowed restricted access to family members. One resident, who had been entirely compos mentis before, was unable to recognize her daughter once visitation opened up again. The stress of the separation had undone her. The more demented residents don’t understand why they’re being restricted to taking meals in their rooms, and why their families aren’t visiting them any more. They think they’re being punished for some unknown sin. In addition, although you listed some of the difficulties faced by those who care for the elderly, what many don’t realize is that Janet and her colleagues are also first in line for abuse from family members in distress about the deteriorating condition of their elders. It’s a seriously underrated, underpaid, and largely unrewarding job—these overworked caregivers seldom have time to do much more than the most basic feeding and cleaning of their charges— yet as you say, they continue to risk their own wellbeing to give the best care they have to their often forgotten clients. Let them be remembered in the howling and beating of drums offered up to frontline workers every evening.
Jennifer, it’s hard to hear that Janet and her co-workers are being blamed for the condition, when the blame should be put on the corporations that make money off the elderly. For me, many of the caregivers are saints or bodhisattvas. That we treat them so poorly is shameful. My best to Janet and her colleagues.