Pandemic’s painful truth; we don’t value elders

Legalizing assisted suicide in a society with unequal access to affordable health care, let alone end of life care, creates an unintended and unspoken pressure on terminally ill patients, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities to not to be a burden that constrains freedom of choice rather than expanding it.  This is especially dangerous in an ageist society that devalues the lives of older people and the U.S. response to the current pandemic have made inequalities rooted in ageism more apparent than ever.

When the novel coronavirus first emerged, the U.S. response was slowed by the common impression that Covid-19 mainly killed older people. Those who wanted to persuade politicians and the public to take the virus seriously needed to emphasize that — to cite the headline of a political analysis that ran in The Washington Post in March — “It isn’t only the elderly who are at risk from the coronavirus.” The clear implication was that if an illness “merely” decimated older people, we might be able to live with it…

It’s become clear that nursing homes are particularly deadly incubators: Fourteen states report that more than half of their Covid-19 fatalities are associated with long-term-care facilities. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization says that as many as 50 percent of all deaths in Europe have occurred in such places. Hans Kluge, the WHO’s top official for Europe, called this “an unimaginable human tragedy.”

Yet this is not an inevitable tragedy. Policymakers and health-care providers have long accepted the preventable suffering of older adults in long-term-care institutions. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that about 20 percent of Medicare beneficiaries in skilled nursing facilities suffer avoidable harm. And for decades, government data has shown that nursing homes can be infection tinderboxes: Almost two-thirds of the approximately 15,600 nursing homes in the United States have been cited for violating rules on preventing infections since 2017, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of state inspection results.

In few areas is the disconnect between law and practice so striking as in nursing homes. Enforcement seldom amounts to more than a slap on the wrist…It’s hard to see the lack of protection for nursing home patients — both before and during the coronavirus crisis — as anything except evidence that older people’s lives are deemed less worthy than those of younger people…

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