By Jack Cumming

There are some great, caring people leading senior living communities and trying to eke out a living. The pandemic this year has struck a dagger into the heart of their well-being. In some instances, that blow has been fatal. Businesses, including senior living businesses, are strained to the point of failure. It will take years and longer to recover what has been lost.

All businesses, and especially senior living businesses, have been stricken. That is an injustice of the first magnitude. Moreover, the senior living industry has been unfairly singled out by media outlets hungry for the drama of outrage because it has taken on the challenge of housing and caring for the most vulnerable.

The Best of Senior Living

In the best of senior communities there emerge relationships of mutuality, trust, candor, friendship, and genuine caring between staff members and residents. Everyone has been hit by this dread disease. It has ravaged our nation and our world. Caring providers rose to the challenge quickly, incredibly quickly, to keep the residents in their care safe and thriving. Extraordinary efforts were put in place to keep residents fed and to lift their spirits through new, ingenious forms of socialization.

Isolation can cause despair for those living alone in large homes that once housed a family. Senior living mitigates that despair. Moreover, those unfortunate infected people living alone are often discharged from hospitals to home, where they are quarantined. That makes it difficult for them to get groceries or home repairs, and to cope with all that a single-family house demands. In the extreme, if the disease impacts their minds, if they suffer periodic disease-related delirium, their situation can be dire. Congregate living is the best aging choice for most older Americans.

Money Matters

Senior living is a godsend. It’s also a business. Operators who did whatever it took to respond immediately to the needs of residents and staff have found themselves faced with enormous unanticipated costs. One operator of a relatively small, standalone community was heard recently to lament having to pay upwards of $11,000 a week just for COVID-19 testing mandated by the authorities. There’s no question that testing matters. There can be no criticism of authorities who require such testing. Nevertheless, those operators are left with the question of who pays the bills. Insurance companies are reluctant to pick up the tab. Legislators in Congress and state capitols have preferred wrangling over agreeing on a constructive, concerted response. Those people who are doing the right thing and who have lived diligent lives of integrity ought not to be penalized in this way.

We often hear that COVID-19 is a phenomenon of nature, characterized by insurance contracts as an Act of God. The idea is that those whose lives are destroyed by such an occurrence are just tragedies to be endured. Others, though, point to past potential pandemics – H1N1, Ebola, and more – to suggest that adequate preparation and quick response could have prevented the devastation that has stamped the year 2020 for all time. If there was a lapse of government vigilance, and I don’t know whether there was or wasn’t, then the government should pick up the tab. Can that be done without destroying the value of our currency? These are questions that we hope that people of high calling and competence are addressing.

Human Courage and Grace

Many frontline workers and residents have been impacted. There have been outbreaks. Caregivers and medical experts have risked their lives, and many have paid the dreadful price of that risk. For residents and staff, however, who have escaped the ravages of an unchecked disease, the worst that happens is loss of income, economic distress, and sometimes temporary incarceration in the name of “quarantine”. Those impacts should not be trivialized. They are life-changing and often tragic. They are only surpassed by the tragedy of premature death without the comfort of loved ones through one’s last days.

Our hearts go out to all who are impacted by this challenging year and by what can seem like a tepid, contentious response by those in authority. We are all learning. People complain that the rules keep changing. But we know that the disease mutates, and epidemiology experts are only learning the ins and outs of this scourge as it evolves and we gain experience. Politicians have gotten caught up in the drama. But they, too, are simply fighting for what they believe in the face of an enemy that dwells among us instead of on some distant battlefield.

Are We Victims?

We are all victims of the circumstances of this year. Some of us have had to endure more and suffer more than others. That’s not fair but not everything can be fair. With hindsight, we can see things that might have been handled differently. But there is no merit in casting aspersions or assigning blame when people are doing their level best. We need to move beyond the deflection of responsibility that is the blame game. We are all in this together. We all have responsibility. We need to learn from the experience, to try to ameliorate the impacts on those most affected as best we can. And to move forward to restore our nation and our world toward a better tomorrow.

Now, as we move through the dark time of the year, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere, let us look forward to the promising year ahead and let us find strength, resilience, adaptability, and progress from within ourselves to sustain us in crisis and to lift us in the decade to come.

In an editorial in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, the editor, Gideon Rose, asks, “Can America Recover?” That applies to all of us, as does his answer, “Character and competence have saved the country before. They could again.” They will again. We will rise triumphant from this challenge as we have in the past. Senior living will change and evolve and extend its reach. Opportunity beckons. Now is the time to seize it.