It is widely recognized that the elderly are most at risk from the novel coronavirus, hence it makes sense to take special efforts to protect them, both for their own sakes and for the sake of the general public.
The nightmare scenario has always been that hospitals would be overwhelmed with people requiring ventilators and intensive care treatment and, as happened in Italy and Spain, for example, doctors would be forced to choose which patients to treat, often resulting in the oldest being left to die.
Israel, partly because of its relatively young demographic composition, has so far managed to avoid this terrible predicament. But the country is at risk of missing the bigger picture. In many cases, the elderly – not all of them much older than 65 – are being placed in an intolerable situation.
Following the relatively large number of deaths among residents of nursing homes, a very strict lockdown has been put in place at most facilities, with soldiers guarding the gates to monitor who enters and leaves. While the reasons for these precautions are clear – including to the residents – the results can be devastating.
In many cases, families that have been the major support of parents and grandparents suffering from cognitive impairment can no longer see their loved ones. Some of these elderly residents do not understand why this is happening. Particularly distressing was the report of the plan to remove Alzheimer’s sufferers, many of them Holocaust survivors, from their facility in Rishon Lezion, to prepare it to be used as an isolation center for corona patients if necessary. One set of patients should not be sacrificed for the sake of another. That is a basic precept of the Hippocratic oath.
The report over the weekend that patients from nursing homes were incorrectly diagnosed as suffering from COVID-19 and hospitalized in special wards also points to an extremely worrying chain of events.
The elderly everywhere are suffering from isolation and its devastating consequences. Those who are used to seeing children and grandchildren are being distanced, and those without close families are more alone and lonely than ever. Using platforms such as Zoom is not necessarily a viable alternative. The over-70s are not a homogeneous group; some are comfortable using social media, others are not, and still more might be able to use such media if someone is available to teach them.
Locking residents of retirement homes in their buildings – and in some cases in their rooms – is not a reasonable solution, certainly not in the long term. People need social, physical and mental activities in some form, be it in a central hall, respecting the two-meter distance regulation and wearing masks, or using a central courtyard that can be seen from balconies.
Not so long ago, the entire Western world followed with interest and empathy the fates of those passengers locked into cabins on cruise ships. Now, an entire segment of the population – a particularly vulnerable sector that often is without a voice – is undergoing something similar, unable to leave the confines of their rooms, with meals being left outside the door and without human contact. This is hard enough for a two-week quarantine, but it is not acceptable for a sustained period.
There has been a heartwarming effort to provide food and supplies to the suddenly confined needy but the time has come to think of how to relieve the stress and anxiety and feeling of abandonment.
There needs to be broad testing within retirement homes to monitor the situation and prevent these facilities frome accidentally becoming petri dishes of disease.
Last year, KAN 11 broadcast a touching series called 80 Plus Four, which documented the mutual benefits when a retirement home hosted a kindergarten for a few weeks. Obviously, now is not the time to introduce even low-risk kindergarten kids into retirement homes, but the authorities should now be thinking of the morning after for the country’s oldest age group.
Elderly people need a reason to get up in the morning, and to know that they have a tomorrow.