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Catherine Ruth PakalukFebruary 15, 2021

The shutdowns in the United States—of businesses, restaurants, schools, churches—began one year ago this March. We asked 14 experts to reflect on the biggest lessons from the past year in the hope that they might help us find a better way forward. You can read the rest of the series here.

By now we are well aware that the single biggest risk factor for a severe or fatal Covid-19 outcome is age. But we are still coming to grips with the fact of enormous increased incidence of severe or fatal Covid-19 among adults in long-term care as compared with those living at home. A study in November comparing population-specific mortality ratios and rates for long-term care residents and community-dwelling adults over 65 across 12 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found on average a 24-fold increase in the death rate among long-term care residents, with country-specific numbers ranging from 14 fold (Germany) to 74 fold (Canada). American adults age 65 and older are 23 times more likely to die from Covid-19 if they live in a long-term care facility instead of at home with family.

What we should learn from this is that the very best place for our elderly to live—now and always—is where they are loved. This is just as true for children, people with disabilities and all who are sick or suffering. Ultimately, we know this is true for all of us. The American family can still be the safe house that our faith tells us it should be.

This is good news and a big challenge. Good news, because we have a powerful program to fight this epidemic and the next crisis down the road. We can begin today to bring our elderly home again. There are about 1.5 million adults in nursing homes and an additional million in assisted living communities. Many of these cases require sophisticated medical care that cannot be handled at home. But a large number of older adults with special needs can be accommodated at home with greater reliance on visiting nurses, family education, medical equipment and open hearts.

Such a change also requires that we reorient our society to value and make room for care work in concrete ways. Practically, we should pursue lively conversations about flexible work arrangements, family leave and tax credits for caregivers, regardless of the age of their dependents. And even beyond these types of vital assistance, we can bring caregivers a meal, offer to relieve them for a day and practice the virtues of encouragement and prayer.

When the reckoning of this year gets fully underway, I hope we will include a reassessment of our willingness to separate the elderly from our homes and from our lives. I am persuaded that we will all be better off—young and old alike—if we can willingly adopt lifestyles that involve the daily, bodily care of those who once bodily cared for us.

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