Pandemic Puts the Spotlight on Elderly Care
If there’s one thing the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) did was push the issue of caring for the elderly front and center in the United States.
When the virus hit, elderly residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities nationwide could no longer receive visits from family and friends. Older adults who lived independently sheltered in place to avoid exposure to the virus.
Restrictive measures to protect seniors were put in place since public health officials said older adults with underlying health conditions, such as respiratory problems, heart disease, and diabetes, were more susceptible to COVID-19. But additional support, at that time, to protect seniors was not available.
The pressure was on at nursing homes and assisted living facilities where workers had to handle intense issues brought on by COVID-19 all while taking care of residents’ personal needs.
COVID-19 Challenge Long-Term Care Workers
Long-term care facilities needed additional funding from state and local governments for personal protection equipment, COVID-19 testing, and other resources during the crisis, according to Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL). The AHCA/NCAL represents more than 14,000 nursing homes and assisted living facilities nationwide.
Parkinson noted that assisted living residences have yet to receive any direct aid, despite caring for vulnerable seniors. What’s more, with the efforts workers put into taking care of residents,
In late May, the federal government released $4.9 billion in COVID-19 relief funds directly to skilled nursing facilities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHS), each skilled nursing facility in the country will receive a baseline payment of $50,000, plus an additional $2,500 per bed.
Taking precautions to protect elderly residents from COVID-19 was a “heroic and herculean work,” according to James Nyberg, executive director of LeadingAge RI a trade association in Rhode Island that represents non-profit senior care providers which includes nursing homes, assisted living, senior housing, adult day, home health, and PACE.
Nyberg said it was challenging for staff to go to work and keep residents mentally and physically stimulated during the crisis.
Workers came with new ways to entertain residents and keep them mentally and physically stimulated during the lockdown. Bingo games, for example, went from residents sitting next to each other in a communal area to sitting in their doorways while someone stayed in the hall to call out the letter and numbers.
To further avoid feelings of social isolation, workers in nursing homes and assisted living facilities used computers to help residents visit family and friends via video chats and family members’ social media pages.
Parkinson said everyone should rally around nursing homes and assisted living facilities the same way they rally around hospitals.
In-Home Caregivers Also Took Precautions
Just as the coronavirus presented new obstacles to long-term care facilities, the pandemic also brought challenges to in-home caregivers and home health aides.
Seniors depend on in-home caregivers to help them with grooming, dressing, toileting, and other daily living activities. So, practicing social distancing as public health officials directed would not be possible, for instance, for a caregiver or home health aide who bathes an older adult, takes an older adult’s temperature or helps their client take off or put on an artificial limb.
Since older adults needed more protection during the pandemic, home care agencies ensured that their workers did everything possible to protect their clients. For instance, in-home caregivers monitored their own health while their agencies checked in with them to make sure they were taking care of themselves as well as their clients.
Fortunately, seniors were not socially isolated during the pandemic. In-home caregivers helped their clients to maintain a daily routine and made sure they had groceries and meals. What more’s, in-home caregivers helped their clients keep in touch with family members, who also received reassurances from the caregiver about their loved one’s condition during the crisis.
Pandemic Highlights Ageism
Besides elder care, the COVID-19 pandemic placed a spotlight on age discrimination, also called “ageism.”
For example, when COVID-19 first hit the United States, it was reported that the virus “only affects older adults,” which was not true, said Melissa Chalker, executive director for the New Jersey Foundation for Aging. Chalker believed the word, “only” was dismissive and discriminatory because it made it sound as if older adults did not deserve care or respect.
In Europe, nursing homes were used as convalescent facilities for people discharged from hospitals who were infected with COVID-19 and needed a place to recover. Using nursing homes this way and exposing older adult residents to the virus was a costly mistake, according to Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe.
Rather than overlook and undervalue seniors, more resources and protective equipment should be provided to facilities and workers who care for older adults, Kluge said.
In response to ageism complaints in the United States, Chalker said that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights (OCR), provided guidelines to ensure healthcare providers do not discriminate against older adults and people with disabilities when making life-saving decisions about which COVID-19 patients to treat.
In the meantime, Chalker encourages community members to counteract ageism by checking on older adults and making sure they have food, medication, and other resources. People can also make donations to programs that service seniors in their local community.
Will the Pandemic Lead to Reform of Elder Care?
Senior care advocates nationwide believe the COVID-19 pandemic should be the catalyst for change in the way older adults are cared for in America.
Tony Chicotel, a staff attorney for the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, suggests reform could involve a shift from a “congregate living model,” like nursing homes are now, to an in-home health service model. In this reimagined community-based care facility, a few residents would be cared for by trained specialists in a home instead of a hospital-like setting.