In an existential sense we all die alone. Yet, we often feel reassured when the obituaries we read include “surrounded by family.” But being surrounded by family (however defined) in our final minutes is, in this time of crisis, an unfulfilled wish. In this time the ferryman (Charon in Greek Mythology) taking us across the river is a health care worker. Imagine being trained to restore people to health yet called upon again and again to hold the hand of the dying person who, literally, is fearfully drowning in front of your eyes. And, having served that noble and anguished purpose, you cannot yourself fall into the embrace of your co-workers or even, perhaps, your own family.
We must express our appreciation and love for these health care workers who take our place as the new family of those who are dying. Standing on balconies to clap and bang pans is helpful but perhaps falls short – the equivalent of the perfunctory “thank you for your service” we provide to soldiers in the airport without truly knowing what they have sacrificed.
It is not only through our words but through our own actions that we can express this appreciation. The action of social distancing. The wearing of a face covering. The provision of a smile, which can be seen from six feet. These are things we do for each other that, in fact, constitute the best form of appreciation to the frontline care workers. For it is through these actions that we reduce the patient population – reduce the anguish and stress of care work as it is experienced these days.
The Bloomington (Indiana) Commission on Aging serves to bring attention to the needs and contributions of older adults in our community. Knowing that the oldest among us are the most vulnerable, how can we abandon them in their time of need? How can we thank the greatest generation for its contributions to our freedom and prosperity while flagrantly throwing caution to the wind in order to return to the beach and the bar without distancing, without masks? Armed protestors proclaim their rights to reject face coverings in the name of freedom while they, themselves, jeopardize the lives of those elders who fought for freedom in their name.
I am bothered by the sub-text of the public attitude that implies the very old are dispensable, that they are near death anyway and life is for the living, meaning the young, the robust. Some envision a future in which old people, as a group, will be required to stay home while others frolic in public. Traveling through the streets of my university town and seeing close-knit crowds of young people sucking beer on front porches is galling. But it is not just young people. In many places, it is quickly becoming unusual to see a mask.
Of course we all want to return to normal. But we cannot rush. Some have said the virus is just normal as is the flu, so what’s the big deal? So it’s ok that 26,000 older people died from the flu in the 18/19 flu season? It’s not ok. If we truly value our elders, we must go beyond the sometimes patronizing reverence and take action not just for ourselves but for others. Keep your distance. Wear your mask. Keep the faith.
Philip B. Stafford, Chair
Bloomington Commission on Aging