MASSACHUSETTS NEEDS to clearly demonstrate that it values older Massachusetts residents and is committed to building an age-friendly Commonwealth so that all residents of Massachusetts can age with dignity and independence. That means tackling the systemic problem of ageism – prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age.
There are more reasons for treating the elderly or those with disabilities with dignity and respect beyond the biblical admonition found in Matthew 25 (31-46) or the golden rule principle of treating others as you want to be treated – a maxim that is found in many religions and cultures.
Increasingly, seniors are a growing segment of the Massachusetts population. According to the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, those age 65 or older will increase from 17 percent of the population this year, to 19 percent in 2025, to a remarkable 21 percent in 2030. By 2030, one out of every five people in the state will be an older adult. In addition, an increasing number of older adults will suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia, requiring more services and supports.
Massachusetts needs to address the problems of financing long-term care, provide a greater commitment of resources, and summon the leadership needed to do a better job with this growing part of our population. Failure to address these issues will result in seniors overwhelming our health and hospital system, not just nursing homes.
Furthermore, seniors invariably see nursing homes as places where they are left alone to just fade away. As noted sociologist Amitai Etzioni told CNN a few years ago, “No one has come out yet and explicitly suggested that old folks like me (I am about to turn 83) should be treated the way the Eskimos, as folklore has it, used to treat theirs: put on an ice floe and left to float away into the sunset. We are, however, coming dangerously close. We should learn from the Eskimos — they long ago stopped abandoning their elderly just because they got ‘too’ old.”
Approximately 5,400 seniors in Massachusetts nursing homes died, apart from their loved ones, over a four-month period from COVID-19. That’s equivalent to a fully loaded 737-jet crashing every day for a month. The public would be outraged, and no one would want to fly if that were to happen. We should all be outraged that nursing homes and regulators failed to prevent this tragedy.
We need to act now to prepare for the next wave of COVID or the next pathogen that attacks us. Nursing homes and their regulators need:
- Greater Emphasis on infection control.
- Long-term care should have the best personal protection equipment and testing available.
- Don’t mix COVID-19 recovering patients with nursing home patients
- Appropriate staffing levels are critical.
- Provide sick time for employees.
- Pay direct care and maintenance staff a living wage so they don’t need to work in multiple facilities.
- Manage turnover – use regular staff, not temporary registry staff who work multiple locations.
- Limit visitors and test everyone.
- Move to single-room occupancy.
- Stop licensing large facilities.
Massachusetts has long been a leader in supporting a wide range of home and community-based services, including two programs that aid elderly state residents to remain living in their homes instead of moving into nursing homes. These are the Home Care Program and the very similar Enhanced Community Options Program. Other programs to support seniors and persons with disabilities living independently include the Pharmacy Assistance Program; e-Prescribing; Senior Care Options; the Program of All-Inclusive Care for Elderly, or PACE; and the Citizen Circuit Breaker. These kinds of programs should be expanded and available to seniors throughout the Commonwealth.
Richard Moore is a former state senator who served as the Senate chair of the Committee on Health Care Financing co-sponsoring several of the programs administered by Massachusetts to benefit the elderly and people with disabilities. He is among the organizers of Dignity Alliance Massachusetts (DignityMA5@gmail.com ) although the views expressed in this article are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org