While our moral sensitivities have built up immunity to the numbing statistics on elderly isolation and incapacitation, they still bear repeating. Nearly 6 million Americans age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, and approximately 120,000 are likely to die of it this year. More than 2 million people live in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. For women who typically outlive their spouses by several years, a stay in a long-term-care center can have the feel of solitary confinement. Men age 75 and older have the highest likelihood of suicide of any demographic group.
When Mother Teresa was asked to name the worst disease she had ever seen, some expected that she might say leprosy or AIDS. But no, she said it was loneliness — that terrible feeling of being unloved, unwanted and forgotten. This disease afflicts more than the lives of elderly shut-ins and those who can no longer age in place. It also touches upon the many seniors whose immediate family and other relatives maintain little or no contact with them.
What may make matters worse for this long-suffering population is that it could face a societal backlash over the safety measures being put in place to slow the pace of infections. The “Boomer Remover” slur that trended on Twitter recently may have been shared in jest, but underlying it was a resentment over the sacrifices being demanded of all for the sake of the old and very old among us. Canceled sporting events and workplace-routine disruptions are one thing, but layoffs, foreclosures, small-business bankruptcies and depleted personal savings are another. For the great majority of Americans who have not felt that their lives are threatened by the coronavirus, there may be a temptation to blame the country’s most vulnerable for the adverse consequences owing to the extreme measures now in place.
From its founding, America has nurtured a covenant among the generations. Now is a good time to renew it. Our elders cared for us when we were dependent upon them. They helped build the society and economy we now enjoy and also inculcated the work ethic and values that will undergird the country’s upcoming recovery efforts. More than ever, we should cherish their lives and mobilize across generations in an effort to combat the disease of loneliness that will linger long after a vaccine is found and the covid-19 threat recedes.
As the public health precautions we’re living with demonstrate, every life is precious. The elderly and chronically ill among us are not burdens but gifts. It is not enough to simply want to keep them alive. We must help them live. Their God-given human dignity, and the time-honored command to honor our mothers and fathers, demands nothing less.
Today when you are lonely, resolve to make a plan to alleviate the loneliness of someone whose isolation will not end when the virus subsides. When you are anxious about the future, say a prayer for those who feel they have no hope. Turn your social distancing into an opportunity to understand and relieve the suffering of our brothers and sisters for whom your temporary discomfort is a permanent state of affairs.