The new coronavirus, COVID-19, has turned our collective world upside down and given us a new vernacular with expressions such as “flattening the curve,” “physical distancing” and “surge.” We are experiencing anxiety and fear of the unknown. Social connections with family and friends have never meant more.
We are gerontologists, and within our respective professions — social work, nursing and medicine — are committed to improving older adults’ lives through practice, teaching and research. We believe that society must do everything possible to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19, especially older adults whose death rate from COVID-19 increases with age. This is likely not due to chronological age itself but rather to the presence of multiple medical conditions.
For the past few weeks, public health officials and national, state and local government have urged physical distancing. However, with anxiety mounting about the volatile stock market, President Trump is proposing that the economy be reopened by Easter Sunday, a date much sooner than recommended by public health experts. That date was later put back to at least April 30.
Even more ominous are recent recommendations that go beyond physical distancing and suggest that sequestering older adults from society will protect the economy and our futures.
The lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, went so far as to state on Fox News that he would be willing to chance his survival in exchange for the, “America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren,” and that, “there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me.” These sentiments are increasingly echoed by others.
We are extremely alarmed by this ageist rhetoric. As health care providers, we are fully aware that when health care systems reach capacity, as is predicted will soon happen, clinicians may resort to drastic measures, including prioritizing care for those most likely to survive and withholding care from those with poorer predicted outcomes. These measures never favor the old or chronically ill. Such measures were instituted in Italy, perhaps contributing to the high death rate of older adults there, and are under consideration across the U.S. as hospitals face space, staff and supply shortages.
There is one way to prevent this from happening — adhering to public health measures for all age groups including handwashing, isolating the ill, and practicing physical distancing.
These public health measures should inherently resonate with Utahns who highly value family. After all, we have the fastest aging population of any state. Older adults in Utah are family, civic and religious leaders. They are grandparents, often raising or providing childcare and financially supporting family members. They contribute richly to our economic and social fiber. Age-only considerations about how we respond to COVID-19 violate our shared ethos that the lives of all of our family members and citizens are valuable.
As gerontologists and Utahns, devaluing the lives of older adults for any reason — and for the “economy” in particular — is an affront to both our professional and personal values. We are pleased that Gov. Gary Herbert has issued a “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive for all Utahans regardless of age. We urge every family to determine how they will adhere to the directive and decrease COVID-19 risk for all.
Finally, we encourage every person to reflect on the inherent worth of each age group and avoid the ageist notions that COVID-19 public health measures should isolate older adults so that the rest of society can get back to normal. Both ideas devalue our elders and their contributions to our families and society as a whole.
Linda S. Edelman, Ph.D., RN, is an associate professor at the University of Utah College of Nursing and program director for the Utah Geriatric Education Consortium and the Nurse Education, Practice, Quality and Retention Program.
Kathie Supiano, Ph.D., LCSW, is an associate professor at the University of Utah College of Nursing. She teaches in the Gerontology Interdisciplinary Program and is director of Caring Connections: A Hope and Comfort in Grief Program.
Timothy Farrell, M.D., AGSF, is an associate professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, physician investigator at the VA Salt Lake City and director of the University of Utah Health Interprofessional Education Program.