America is in the middle of a health crisis unlike anything we’ve seen before. While there’s reassuring data that COVID-19 does less harm to children and young adults, elderly citizens are particularly vulnerable. At least 15% of Americans are age 65 and older and many of them “have the greatest risk” of contracting the coronavirus and should “take extra precautions” to protect themselves, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One precaution the CDC advises is for everyone to stay home as much as possible. At the same time, the CDC’s additional advice for at-risk individuals to “stock up on supplies” presents a dilemma. Older adults seeking food, medication and even toilet paper have had to brave a sea of panic buyers — exactly the kinds of crowds they’ve been instructed to avoid. And those who waited patiently for the chaos to subside often arrived too late. The viral photo of a senior citizen looking for food on empty shelves is truly heartbreaking.
My generation needs to step up and be there for the elderly and vulnerable during this time.
“Checking on your elderly neighbors is a good Samaritan act in the wake of a coronavirus outbreak,” Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, recently told The Washington Post.
For our part, my wife and I reached out to some of our senior neighbors this weekend. We didn’t enter anyone’s home and we strictly avoided person-to-person contact as we dropped off meals and offered to fetch groceries and essentials as needed. One neighbor told us he’ll be needing toilet paper very soon.
Of course we need to be careful in any of our efforts to assist senior citizens that we don’t do more harm than good. COVID-19 appears to be highly contagious and social distancing must be taken seriously by limiting all person-to-person contact. Anyone can be a carrier of the disease, even those not experiencing symptoms. Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University, told Time magazine that we shouldn’t be going to restaurants at all during this time because “the businesses can take the two- or three-week shutdown better than grandma can take the virus.” He also said items like food should be left on someone’s doorstep without “any physical contact.” If that sounds too extreme remember that the country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told ABC’s Jonathan Karl on Sunday: “When you think you are doing too much, you are probably doing enough or not enough.”
Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer at AARP, recommends that we can safely offer help to the elderly by getting “back to the old-fashioned ways of communication.” She suggests making telephone calls, video conferencing, sharing of photographs through social media, dropping off a handwritten card, or using a delivery service to send flowers or groceries, when possible.
There are many opportunities to assist others. Professional runner Rebeca Mehra recently posted about a couple in their 80s she encountered outside a Safeway in Bend, Oregon, who were too “afraid to go in the store” with such large crowds present. The woman was “nearly in tears” and asked Rebecca if she could buy their groceries for them. They gave her a $100 bill and their grocery list and Rebecca returned their change and delivered the requested items to the trunk of their car shortly thereafter.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the freedoms we enjoy today came at a heavy cost to the generation before ours. Our veterans and their families shouldered that burden for the rest of us. Though there’s no comparison to the sacrifices they’ve made, the coronavirus health crisis is real and it’s my generation’s turn to shoulder this burden for them.
Daryl Austin is a writer based in Utah.