“Coronavirus only kills old people, and they are going to die anyway.” This is what a 27-year-old said to me a few weeks ago. She was so assured in her youth and immortality, even as news of the virus was slowly trickling into the United States. Only three weeks later, coronavirus has consumed our daily life, and as more and more politicians and public figures are prioritizing the economy over the lives of those most at-risk from COVID-19, I think of my mother, the abuse she faced in her old age, and all the ways in which our society devalues everyone who lives past the age of 65.
My mother was a mentally ill and widowed Bengali immigrant, and by the time she died at age 69, my relationship with her was a strained one. Because of her illness, my childhood was tumultuous. She was unpredictable and could be violent. She heard voices. There is so much silence around mental illness in both the United States and in India, though, that she could never name her disease. And, she refused help, which as she became older and more vulnerable, led to her demise.
When she was in her late sixties, my mother was living with my aunt in Kolkata, India. When I checked in, my aunt told me that my mother was fine and she was taking care of her. In actuality, my aunt was sedating my mother, which she later claimed she did to ease my mother’s mental afflictions. The sedatives made my mother sleep for hours at a time. I didn’t know that my mother had also been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and that, due to being sedated, her bones became more and more brittle until she was unable to move. My aunt would travel on the weekends with money she drained from my mother’s bank accounts, leaving my mother alone to sleep in her own urine and feces. When I found my mother, her body was almost a carcass. She could barely breathe and had a bedsore the size of a full-sized dinner plate that had chewed through her skin; I could see parts of her dead spine.
My mother died just over four years ago, on March 16th, 2016. Hers is an extreme example of elder abuse, but it is not unique. I learned about it too late to do anything; sometimes I wonder if I am just as complicit as my aunt in my mother’s death. But I know that the neglect of our elders extends beyond my story, and is prevalent throughout our society. Even in the best of times, we have collectively ignored the abuse of an entire generation. We have done so because it’s easier. It’s easier to ignore, thinking that it’s not our problem, because we can relegate those who are older, to the far corners of a nursing home, far away from our everyday lives.
Right now, we are not in the best of times. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, facing a disease that disproportionately kills people over the age of 65. And far too many young people have chosen to prioritize themselves over their elders. They are refusing to isolate and still socialize in large groups; they are perpetuating a type of elder neglect that is tantamount to abuse. I hear the abuse in commentary around statistics, that the virus only kills the old. An Atlantic article, “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Towards the Elderly,” notes that the coronavirus is giving cause to “treat the aged callously.” Humans fear mortality and the elderly embody the fact that we will all eventually die. Perhaps it is this fear that drives the comments younger people make; perhaps it is this fear that has forced governors to shut down bars and restaurants, because they are populated by those who don’t care that their actions will spread the virus; perhaps it is this fear that drives our indifference toward both the invisible and visible communities that are most affected by the pandemic. But we cannot be driven by fear, not when so many lives are at stake.
Even though we are still only in the early stages of dealing with this pandemic in America, it’s already clear how the elderly will be treated — and mistreated — as it continues. Doctors will choose the lives of the young over the old when our hospitals are overrun with patients and our health care system becomes overwhelmed. We’ve already seen the hard choice of who to let live and who to let die in Italy. When the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home in the Seattle area, became the epicenter of the virus last month, the rest of the United States kept bustling. By late February, the coronavirus had run rampant throughout the elderly population at the Life Care Center, but President Trump still called the virus a “hoax.” On February 26th he reassured the American people that there would “be close to zero” new cases, even as the number of cases rose. I learned of the deaths and the residents of Life Care of Kirkland as the date of my mother’s death anniversary approached, and I cried. I imagined elderly people, some as vulnerable as children, disoriented from the death and illness around them. I thought of those with dementia, bewildered, unable to comprehend their surroundings, and remembered my aunt’s abuse; I remembered my mother’s mental illness. I wondered what my mother thought and felt as she laid alone, dying. Now, because of social distancing, even family members cannot visit their parents and grandparents and they are the most alone.
As of March 23rd, 35 of the 543 deaths in the United States from the coronavirus are connected to the nursing home in Seattle. We are still noting that the deaths primarily affect the elderly and those who are immunocompromised, though people are now beginning to realize that everyone is at risk. Still, it is the elderly who always seem to be the first group mentioned when talking about the vulnerable, serving as a linguistic reassurance to those who are young and healthy: You won’t die, only those who don’t matter will. While it is important to celebrate that children aren’t usually affected by this virus, why should it be a reason to celebrate that those children might grow up without grandparents?
But while the virus is highlighting heedlessness towards the elderly, we shouldn’t miss the fact that this neglect and abuse has always been there — it is nothing new, and my aunt’s actions towards my mother are an extreme example of this. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that “15.7% of people over the age of 60 are subjected to abuse.”
As I continue to mourn the death of my mother, I wonder how much the language around the coronavirus enhances the WHO statistics on the abuse of the elderly. Isn’t each assurance that only the old will die a form of linguistic violence? Are we not complicit in neglect, cruelty, exploitation, and dehumanization when we cite the statistics that those who are dying are old? Are we not just as responsible for the lives of the old as we are for the young? We are. And we should not forget that if we are lucky, we will get to the age of those that we repudiate, and we will have failed to teach the next generation the value in taking care of us.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the NHS website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.