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Continued Isolation Will Kill More Elderly

Is endless quarantine really the best we can do for our loved ones?

Jim Siteman talks to his 98-year-old mother, Anna Siteman through an opening in a window at the Daggett-Crandall-Newcomb Home in Norton, MA on May 9, 2020. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It is now consensus that what we owe our elderly during this pandemic is extended quarantine. On May 20 in the New York Post, for instance, in an impassioned op-ed, titled, “End New York City’s Lockdown Now!” David Marcus argues that the lockdowns are killing New York and need to be broken immediately. “It needs to end. Now.” But what of the elderly, the chief victims of the pandemic, what do we hope for them? Marcus offers one sentence: “The elderly and infirm can continue to be isolated.”

I assume Marcus wants the best for America’s elderly. But, no. No, they cannot continue to be isolated. 

Endless isolation is inhumane and deadly. It is a method of torture. A punishment inflicted upon the most depraved. It dehumanizes and is the essence of monstrosity.

“I am an unfortunate and deserted creature,” says Mary Shelley’s monster when abandoned by Dr. Frankenstein; “I look around and I have no relation or friend upon earth.” So, the creature takes revenge on his maker by murdering his loved ones, turning the scientist into a being just like him—alone, inhuman, monstrous—by casting him into the outer darkness of total loneliness.

Is endless quarantine really the best we can do for our loved ones?

One can understand the impulse. Contact with the virus is ravaging our elderly. Cuomo’s scandalous mishandling of nursing homes tells the tale.

But that puts us in a bind. Isolation might preserve our elderly from death by COVID, but it will destroy them on its own. If you don’t trust your gut, heed the studies. It increases the risk of early death by 30 percent. It is equivalent in lethality to hard alcoholism or smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and causes twice the harm to one’s mental and physical health as obesity (which was previously considered the greatest health crisis afflicting our country).

And if loneliness doesn’t kill you, it ruins you. It suppresses the immune system, making one more susceptible to illness. It increases blood pressure, putting one at risk of heart attack. It causes brain damage; increases the potential for dementia; stirs depression and anxiety; and drives suicide. As Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults (2020), a new 316-page study by the National Academy of Sciences, summarizes, social isolation is as much of a risk to one’s physical wellness as any other widespread health problem we face today.

This shouldn’t surprise us. For it strikes against the heart of who we are. Long ago, Aristotle marvelled at our natural togetherness and, so observing it, called us zoon politikon (“political animals”), by which he meant that it was fundamental to who we are—it was the achievement of our own purpose—for us to live, deliberate and act together to achieve common goods. Our togetherness, as Aristotle saw it, is not the product of a primordial negotiation between absolute individuals who come together to preserve themselves and their rights. Rather, it is fundamental to who we are as animals. Today, theorists adapt Aristotle’s insight in modern terms, calling us “social animals,” a much loser concept but which nonetheless keeps the core insight intact. We flourish in society, the sociologist observes, and we flounder when alone. 

This is why extreme isolation is punishment—because it attacks our very nature. And this is why it cannot conceivably be considered a humane solution to the problems facing our elderly during the pandemic. 

Still, we must keep them from the virus. So how do we do it?

By boldly confronting immediate and long-term problems. As I’ve said elsewhere and in these pages, the key to breaking the total isolation in long-term care facilities is the rapid test. Rapid testing machines should be installed at every long-term care facility across the country. They should be used to screen caregivers and other employees as they enter to ensure the safety of residents; but, reaching higher, they should open the door to visits by family and friends. Families are being starved of their elderly loved ones, who are languishing without visitors and dying alone. It is only right to restore to them the relationships they hunger for.

State governments, to be clear, do not have the resources to accomplish this. The federal government must help. Let there be a fifth round of legislation. Using new resources provided by congress, President Trump and the governors should outfit our long-term care facilities with any supplies they need going forward and do so with the same urgency with which they prepared our hospitals. For, as we’ve been told time and again, the very reason for the lockdowns is to save our elderly. Our leaders should do what it takes to accomplish the mission they set for themselves. Otherwise they will have failed our loves ones and have sacrificed so much for so little.

The long-term answer is more complex and, as the high death toll has revealed, necessarily more comprehensive. Long-term care facilities are underfunded, overpopulated, old and in decline; and staff are poorly trained, at times neglectful, and underpaid. These issues all need addressing. Long-term care facilities will only grow in importance over the coming decades as Baby Boomers advance in age. We are simply not ready for them.

Still, wherever possible, we should depopulate these facilities by helping families provide in-home care. The cost of elder care is extraordinary and is a burden too great for most households which, despite their love and desire, lack the time, knowledge, and skill. We should support in-home care directly with a generous subsidy that covers the lion’s share of costs and, through paid family leave, give families the flexibility to be home when sickness demands it. Furthermore, three-generation living should be made more affordable, through zoning reform, tax breaks and other means of reducing the costs of building homes that bring the very old and very young under a single roof. This short list of measures is not exhaustive, but nonetheless can help relieve the escalating pressure on nursing homes and give many older Americans the power to live—and die—with loved ones at their side. 

When the dust settles from the protests, our elderly will still be dying in nursing homes at catastrophic rates and still be locked down without hope of reprieve—like beasts stripped of friendship, love, and kin. This unnatural isolation should break our hearts and make us cry for action by our leaders. 

No, continued isolation is not an option. As the Bible says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”

Michael Toscano is executive director of The Institute for Family Studies.

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