The coronavirus pandemic would be a wake-up call for America, advocates for the elderly predicted: incontrovertible proof that the nation wasn’t doing enough to care for vulnerable older adults.
The death toll was shocking, as were reports of chaos in nursing homes and seniors suffering from isolation, depression, untreated illness and neglect. Around 900,000 older adults have died of COVID-19 to date, accounting for three of every four Americans who have perished in the pandemic.
But decisive actions that advocates had hoped for haven’t materialized.
Today, most people — and government officials — appear to accept COVID-19 as a part of ordinary life. Many seniors at high risk aren’t getting antiviral therapies for COVID-19, and most older adults in nursing homes aren’t getting updated vaccines. Efforts to strengthen care quality in nursing homes and assisted living centers have stalled amid debate over costs and the availability of staffers. And only a small percentage of people are masking or taking other precautions in public despite a new wave of COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus infections hospitalizing and killing seniors.
In the last week of 2023 and the first two weeks of 2024 alone, 4,810 people 65 and older lost their lives to COVID-19 — a group that would fill more than 10 large airliners — according to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the alarm that would attend plane crashes is notably absent. (During the same period, the flu killed an additional 1,201 seniors and RSV killed 126.)
“It boggles my mind that there isn’t more outrage,” said Alice Bonner, 66, senior adviser for aging at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. “I’m at the point where I want to say, ‘What the heck? Why aren’t people responding and doing more for older adults?’”
It’s a good question. Do we simply not care?
I put this big-picture question, which rarely gets asked amid debates over budgets and policies, to health care professionals, researchers and policymakers who are older themselves and have spent many years working in the aging field. Here are some of their responses:
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