My mother died this week.
Mom was a victim of Alzheimer’s dementia. Up until six months ago, despite her memory loss, she was pretty happy. She was in one of the best care facilities in Nevada, catering specifically to Alzheimer’s patients. She loved her caregivers there, and she forged strong bonds with them.
My son and I took her on adventures. We took her to her favorite restaurants. Her favorite was Italian. She loved chocolate and she loved ice cream. We took her to Sigfried and Roy’s zoo that features lions and tigers, as well as dolphins. We took her to Redrock Canyon and to see the flamingos at the Flamingo Hotel & Casino. We wheeled her around the park on nice days, bought her ice cream, and brought her to my house on holidays and birthdays. The last years of her life weren’t perfect, but we made them as fulfilling as possible.
Then COVID-19 came and made all of the above impossible.
When two weeks became six weeks and six weeks became months upon months, we knew it was only a matter of time. She was allowed to visit us only through Skype calls, which were confusing for her, or through the window, which seemed likely to make her more confused and agitated, as she began trying to escape.
She tried to get her favorite caregiver to escape with her, so we knew if she saw us through the window, she would be beside herself. And we heard stories from other people, including close relatives of my great uncle (who died a month after COVID-19 lockdowns began), of patients crying and trying to push through the glass. We didn’t want her to go through that.
COVID-19 has taken many elderly lives, and while we all wish to protect them from that deadly virus, killing them via failure to thrive is not the answer. Our current policies will kill many more elderly Americans like my mother.
There have been many cases of the disease spreading in nursing homes, particularly in New York where the governor signed an order in March to put COVID-19-positive elderly back in their facilities rather than keeping them at the hospital until the disease passed. That order killed thousands of elderly people in care facilities. Why Andrew Cuomo took that heartless step while making sure his own mother was safe is an astonishing mystery. Doing a “Cuomo” should really mean something going forward.
But there has to be a better way to care for these people than to lock them up with no hope of ever seeing them again. They are dying without their families around to love them. Their caregivers are depressed and anxious over what they see happening to their patients. They are watching people just give up and die. Their care, however good it might be, in no way compares to the love of one’s family and friends.
Yes, we need to protect our beloved elderly as much as possible. But we are probably fooling ourselves in thinking we can protect them forever from a respiratory illness like COVID-19.
The disease still sneaks into facilities through staff members and deliveries, but as long as the infected person is taken to the hospital and not returned until there is no trace of the virus, good facilities have been able to deal with this challenge competently and keep other patients safe.
So long as this plague is handled in a professional manner rather than the “Cuomo way,” there should be no reason the elderly cannot be visited by their families with masks and maybe gowns on. There is no good reason to make them die alone in this way. COVID-19 has been devastating to the elderly who catch it, but our response to the disease has also been devastating to them. Our utopian and hubristic belief that we can perfectly protect them is having disastrous consequences.