My sister’s comfort with this transition has made the situation more bearable. She says repeatedly, “I think I want to stay a while.” She cannot leave the building because of Covid restrictions but keeps “very busy” with her art, physical therapy and friendly chats with other residents and staff. I smile at her newfound sociability, a welcome reprieve from the debilitating isolation she experienced earlier in the year.
In early December, I brought a small Christmas tree and a few items my sister wanted to give to “people who don’t have anyone to bring them anything” — holiday cards, perfume, chocolate coins for an old man who celebrates Hanukkah. We talked on the phone as I stood outside under my umbrella, waves churning behind me. From her second-floor window, she chuckled that I look like a forecaster from the weather channel and entertained me with dispatches from her new world, telling me about a nurse’s patience with an agitated Russian-speaking woman. It was hard to wave goodbye.
Walking past a line of nursing homes along the boardwalk as I headed back home, I wished I could deliver my sister more than meager holiday cheer.
What I really want for my sister, and the 1.3 million or so nursing home residents in America, is large-scale reform that can help improve care, reduce infection spread and save lives. I want increased funding for Medicare and Medicaid, major payers for long-term care. I want better pay and benefits for workers, sufficient Personal Protective Equipment and staffing.
Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for vaccine priority, my sister could be among the first to receive a shot. But the vaccine isn’t a cure-all for the long-term care crisis. This pandemic has revealed just how little we value the lives of the old, sick and disabled, and the increasingly burned-out workers — many people of color — who care for them.
From the difficult choices we faced searching for a nursing home to the strain many nursing home workers face, I’ve seen how our health care system runs more like a business that in its quest to pinch pennies, hemorrhages dollars and precious lives.
Health care ought to be a sacred and inalienable right. Above all, I wish we’d treat it that way.
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. She specializes in research on health, urban communities, aging and the life course, and is currently writing a book about urban aging for the University of California Press.