Like you, we here at AgingOptions are scouring the headlines just about every day, trying to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath. People like to talk about “the new normal,” but no one seems to be able to predict what normalcy will actually look like in the months and years ahead. Still, it seems clear that many aspects of American life will be permanently transformed by the COVID-19 outbreak – and according to this thought-provoking column from the Washington Post, some of the biggest changes may be in the category of senior housing.
Aging and COVID-19: The Pandemic is a Stark Wake-up Call
The column by opinion contributor Michele Norris should represent a stark wake-up call to seniors, their families, and those who serve them. “In the aftermath of the pandemic,” Norris predicts, “aging in America may never be the same. The spiraling death toll in the nation’s patchwork of nursing home facilities has revealed just how broken the system already was — understaffed, unevenly regulated and economically challenged. And it has underscored the urgency of reexamining and improving the prevailing model of senior care.”
Norris bases her assertion on Kaiser Family Foundation data that says more than 10,000 residents and staff have died from covid-19 infections in long-term care facilities across America. “The actual death toll among nursing home residents is certainly higher because not all states release data,” she adds. New rules published by the federal government on April 19th (you can read them here) will require facilities to report coronavirus cases weekly and alert patients and families of any positive tests within 12 hours, so we may soon have better data.
Aging and COVID-19: At Least One-fifth of Fatalities Have Been from Nursing Homes
Nevertheless, says the Washington Post, the death toll is bleak. “As it is, these numbers are already staggering,” Norris writes. In six states – Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Utah – nursing homes account for more than 50 percent of all COVID-19 deaths. Nationwide, they represent about 20 percent of coronavirus fatalities. “It really is hard to overstate this nightmare,” Tricia Neuman of the Kaiser Family Foundation told Norris.
As the article explains, the devastating crisis in nursing homes represents a double-edged sword. “The elderly who live in such facilities, often with underlying health problems, are particularly vulnerable,” Norris writes. But on top of the poor health of residents, the entire long-term care industry is dangerously unhealthy. “The rash of deaths has also revealed dangerous structural frailties in long-term care institutions,” says the Post.
Aging and COVID-19: Aging Population and Shrinking Workforce are Colliding
According to the article, of the 1.5 million Americans living in nursing homes, about one-third live in facilities rated “average” or “below average” by the federal government. (This doesn’t count 800,000 in assisted living facilities.) “Even before the virus hit, labor standards and demographic trends were on a dangerous collision course,” warns the Washington Post. “An army of 600,000 nursing assistants forms the backbone of the assisted-living model, earning a median annual income of $22,200. Nine out of 10 are women, half have no formal education beyond high school, and 1 in 5 were born outside the United States.”
The physical nature of the work plus the low pay mean that staffing shortages and rapid turnover are endemic. “Meanwhile,” adds the article, “as baby boomers age, the elderly population in America is set to double over the next 20 years, from 48 million to 88 million by 2050. Federal, state and local governments are unprepared for that deluge. Families and seniors often lack adequate savings to pay for institutional care.”
These trends – an aging population and a declining workforce – are hitting hard at an industry already in crisis. “Nursing homes around the country were stretched thin before the wave of coronavirus tragedies,” Norris reports, “arguing that Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates did not keep up with their mounting costs. An economic model that already had paltry profit margins will wobble or collapse.”
Aging and COVID-19: Solutions Needed for Long-Term Care Crisis
If that happens, what’s the answer? The Washington Post article suggests a few possibilities but doesn’t really offer wide-ranging solutions. It’s possible that advances in technology might allow more seniors to age in place, but high-tech gadgetry will not help everyone. Multigenerational housing arrangements offer another answer for many families especially as housing prices rise. The article also says that the for-profit model in long-term care facilities needs to be reexamined, since they tend to have poorer ratings for safety and quality, according to recent reports. Non-profits tend to do better.
“Nursing homes deserve our prayers more than our condemnation,” Norris concludes. “As with health-care workers at hospitals, the assistants, orderlies, food service workers and medical staff in nursing homes deserve our deepest thanks. They show up for work every day knowing that they are walking straight toward danger.” Nevertheless, the poor outcomes for nursing home residents during the pandemic demand answers. “There will most certainly be a national commission to examine the U.S. response to this pandemic. It should include a robust investigation of nursing home deaths — and the underlying structure that left so many vulnerable.”
Michele Norris ends her column with this poignant word picture. “As I write this, I can’t help but think of all of the senior citizens living in the petri dishes of potential infection that are nursing homes right now, waving to family members through windows and learning that friends down the hall are gone. They are trapped in the epicenter of the pandemic, weathering a fate that no one deserves. We owe it to them to ensure this is never repeated.” To that we heartily add our “Amen.”
Two Important Retirement-Planning Announcements from AgingOptions
At AgingOptions our chief desire is to help you prepare for the kind of retirement you’ve always dreamed of having. Toward that end, we want to share two important announcements that are designed to facilitate your LifePlanning process even during this period when most of us are required to avoid gathering in groups.
First, Rajiv Nagaich has scheduled several of his popular, free LifePlanning Seminars in the form of webinars that you can watch conveniently at home. Simply visit our Events Page and register for the webinar of your choice.
Our second announcement: in cooperation with our partners at LifePoint Law, we are excited to launch a ground-breaking new service called the LifePoint Law Emergency Legal Kit. Without leaving your home, you can now consult with a LifePoint Law attorney who will work with you to prepare and sign a complete set of vitally important legal documents including both Financial and Healthcare Powers of Attorney, a Living Will/Advance Directive, a Will or Trust, and much more. Click on the link or call us at AgingOptions and we’ll explain this excellent service to you.
Reliable information has never been more important – and that’s our promise to you at AgingOptions and LifePoint Law. Age on!
(originally reported at www.washingtonpostcom)