Race. Sexuality. Gender. In the modern United States, there exists a growing acknowledgement of systemic inequalities, historically and presently, on the basis of these inherent factors, and more. As public consciousness in the US grows intersectional, age and ageism have emerged as topics of discussion. To many youth, issues like voting age minimums and demographics of social and political stratification in terms of age indicate favor towards older people. However, several points of systemic contention indicate a more complex dynamic at play. To find examples which adequately visualize these systemic failures to address seniors’ rights, one need look no further than the COVID-19 crisis. More specifically, the government’s response towards the disease has both generated and brought to light pre-existing societal issues over a wide variety of topics, including the topic of this article. The COVID-19 global pandemic and the US government’s responses have had devastating consequences for the elderly populations’ human rights in both creating newfound dilemmas in the prison systems and exacerbating recurring concerns in nursing homes all across the nation.
Given the disproportionate effects of contracting the novel coronavirus amongst age levels, it stands to reason that nursing homes and elderly folk in general would be most fatally impacted by the coronavirus to begin with. Furthermore, the potential for developing various mental and health defects as a result of quarantine-induced social isolation in locations with high population density, such as prisons and nursing homes, are both further contributors to their vulnerability. According to the New York Times, nearly 40% of all COVID-related deaths have been linked to nursing homes. These figures, among a sea of data that points towards a similar trend, represent not only a biological and medical difference as a result of age, but also the effects of the government’s inept response throughout the outbreak. For example, the negligence demonstrated in handling incarcerated individuals in the prison system over the outbreak has led to considerable casualties. Lengthy sentencing in the justice system has created nearly 200,000+ prisoners who are 55 or older in the U.S. prison system, especially at risk among prisoners due to their age. These factors, working in conjunction with one another, have spelled, to put it lightly, a hostile environment for elderly in the past year, and do not bode fair signs for times yet to come.
In a system not unlike the prisons, 1.5 million retirees in nursing homes also suffer from additional overreaches on a greater level of complexity. Aside from aforementioned mental and physical health risks incurred by social isolation, the United States Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) “no visitor” policy opens up an age-old flavor of wormy systemic inequities in the COVID-19 can. For example, 19 states have instituted laws or executive orders which grant nursing homes immunity from criminal and civil lawsuits alike. This lack of accountability enables not only gross negligence on the absence of transmission prevention, but also potential misconduct. According to the National Council on Aging, 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 60 suffer from some form of physical, sexual, emotional, financial exploitation. These widespread behaviors are corroborated by data which suggests up to 24.3% of nursing home residents experience physical violence. The compilations of these studies also allude to these figures being lower than the reality of the situation: the nature of the victims of elder abuse contributes to a severe difficulty in formally reporting such abuses. The removal of legal culpability for nursing homes to effectively mitigate these sorts of behaviors, as well as the ban against residents’ friends and family to potentially pick up on or report abuse are all factors in depriving older people of their most basic rights. The United States’ track record of government intervention (or lack thereof) inhibiting the well-being of the elderly is not limited to their disastrous COVID response. Overshadowed and exacerbated by COVID-originated issues of isolation, but foremost in issues of nursing home mismanagement has been the ongoing crisis of over-medication. Specifically, the surfacing of various data points which indicate a large underlying problem of over-medicating nursing home residents with antipsychotic sedatives inappropriately, whether it be for convenience or punishment. This sort of reckless administration is a severe problem: utilizing such antipsychotics nearly doubles the fatality rate in their senior-age recipients, who often neither legally consent to their sedation, nor have the appropriate diagnoses required to justify them. According to a comprehensive Human Rights Watch report, over 179,000 seniors without official diagnoses are administered these drugs every week in the United States. This is especially egregious when taking into account the potentially fatal side effects listed by the FDA for some of these drugs, increasing concern for these acts of negligence. And while this sort of media coverage is dated to 1 or 2 years ago, developments have not just been sparse; they’ve worsened. Despite a 2019 open letter from the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee criticizing the CMS for these sorts of practices, seemingly no significant changes have been made to increase accountability, and with the described visitor-banning policies and immunity from legal suits, the accountability through visitors discovering and reporting such abuses, as well as the potential for financial repercussions seem to have been completely thrown out the window.
The COVID-19 crisis has been one of the most influential events of the past decade in United States modern history, without a doubt. With its effects reverberating in all facets of the U.S. daily lives and systems which govern them, its sweeping impact can overshadow the disproportionate effects towards certain classes of people, age being one of these distinguishing characteristics. As younger generations surge in socio-political literacy and primacy, it becomes increasingly vital that they do their utmost to protect and maintain the human rights of those who have found themselves oppressed on the basis of their age. Advocacy groups, social and political activism, and contributing to organizations who place priority on the rights of the elderly to humane treatment are all crucial ways by which these issues can be resolved. The importance of recognizing the systemic abuses elderly people have faced in the United States historically, and continue to encounter as a result of COVID-19, will prove whether the new generation is truly capable of surpassing past generations in activism, awareness, and justice for all.