Calamity has an awful way of exposing our vulnerabilities. Picture a tornado, sweeping across the Midwestern plains, sucking everything in its path right into the whirlwind. It’s the lighter things, the not-nailed-down things, that go first. When the wind, the dust and the debris finally settle, we learn which things were most vulnerable.
COVID-19 has also exposed much about who’s most vulnerable in our world. By far, the elderly have received the worst of it. The CDC estimates 80 percent of COVID-related deaths in the U.S. have been people 65 and older, and a staggering 40 percent of all U.S. deaths have occurred inside long-term care facilities, like nursing homes.
Because of the increased risk, many of these facilities have endured much harsher shutdowns than the rest of society. Even now, as many of us return to work and church, many people in long-term care facilities are stuck inside, some confined to their own personal rooms. No family. No visitors.
Other data coming to light now shows how COVID-19 affected people with intellectual disabilities. One study by NPR found that people with disabilities living in institutions are somewhere between two and two-and-a-half times more likely to die from the Coronavirus than the general population.
This is because, as one sociologist told NPR, those with disability have higher rates of underlying health problems and also tend to live in close quarters with others, which makes disease transmission much harder to stop. In other words, the COVID-19 tornado picked up the elderly and those with intellectual disability first.
In the early days of the shutdowns, a few people, out of economic anxiety, suggested that efforts to stem the spread of Coronavirus weren’t worth the hassle if the virus only endangered the old or the disabled. It was a shocking thing to hear at the time, but not unexpected given the advance of legal assisted suicide and abortions targeted at babies with disability.
Such policies betray the already deep de-valuing of the elderly and those with disability. It ought not surprise us to encounter the same kind of cultural apathy to their lives when it comes to stopping the spread of a disease that inconveniences the rest of us.
Beyond the virus itself, the elderly and those with disability uniquely feel the negative consequences of the shutdowns as well. The isolation felt everywhere, that may be proving as deadly as the disease, is acutely felt inside long-term care facilities. I recently read a heartbreaking personal account on Twitter, of a grandmother who lives in a nursing home and, at the beginning of the crisis, seemed to be doing well. Though the virus has not infected anyone at her facility, last week she failed a “depression test” meant to diagnose her emotional health. She gave no answer, said the post, to the question of whether she believed she’d be better off dead.
Nursing homes and long-term care facilities can be an incredible blessing. In fact, they’re a legacy of how Christ and His Church has taught the world to value all life. Sociologist and researcher Alvin J. Schmidt, in his 2001 book How Christianity Changed the World, points out that while other cultures showed some reverence for older generations, it was largely followers of Jesus who gave the world the idea of not just revering the old, but actively caring for them. We have a similar legacy when it comes to those with disabilities, who were so often treated horrifically in the ancient and modern world.
But these facilities cannot stand in for the personal care and attention we owe our elderly loved ones and neighbors. Too often, those in long-term homes are “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” for the rest us.
Though we may not be able to visit right now, we can still serve these neighbors in creative ways. Churches can adopt nearby homes and commit to writing letters to tenants. We can donate food for the elderly and the staff who care for them. We can call. When circumstances permit again, we can visit through windows or in outdoor spaces.
And we can pray for these our brothers and sisters who are suffering not just from COVID-19, but from isolation. When doors reopen, let’s flood these facilities with visitors, in Jesus’ name.
CDC | 2019
Joseph Shapiro | NPR | June 9, 2020
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