Op-Ed: Ageism During the Pandemic

The most important thing you can remember is that we are all in this together, regardless of age, disability, race, gender …
Melissa Chalker

We know there has been an outpouring of concern and support for the older adult population during the COVID-19 pandemic. We thank all of you who are showing up every day, ready to serve and assist older adults and caregivers despite the known risks involved.

However, we can’t ignore the blatant ageism that this crisis has highlighted. Ageism isn’t a new concept, from over-the-hill birthday cards to discrimination in the workplace. It is an issue dealt with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, from the onset of this crisis we have seen such comments as COVID-19 “only affects older adults,” which is both untrue and discriminatory in the use of a dismissive word like “only” — as if our elders don’t deserve our care or respect.

In response to this ageism, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights (OCR), has provided recent guidance affirming that medical providers cannot discriminate against those of advanced age, or with disabilities, when making lifesaving determinations about which COVID-19 patients to treat.

Practical responses to ageism

If you believe a policy or practice related to COVID-19 discriminates against older adults or people with disabilities, OCR wants to hear from you. It is prioritizing complaints related to COVID-19. Complaints can be filed directly on the HHS website. Make it clear that the complaint is related to COVID-19. While the federal government has provided that guidance, we know we need to be prepared for all situations.

These are unprecedented times that call for policies we never thought we would need. As recently reported in NJ Spotlight, the New Jersey Department of Health has “distributed guidelines to help hospitals allocate patient resources if there are widespread shortages of things like ventilators or other critical-care supplies.”

These “triage guidelines,” state Department of Health commissioner Judith Persichilli said, “would not be activated unless a hospital’s intensive-care capacity was overwhelmed, and assistance or supplies could not be provided by another facility in the region.”

“The document outlines a decision-making framework that a triage team can use to assign a score to patients in need of critical care — whether they have COVID-19 or another condition — based in part on the likelihood of short- and long-term survival. These scores would be used to determine who is allocated resources if there are not enough to go around,” NJ Spotlight reported.

We would like to reiterate that the hope is that hospitals will never have to implement this policy and its guidelines. We would like to recognize the work that the state officials have put into this matter. We know these are not easy discussions. However, they are making the effort to keep us all safe, and we will continue to work alongside them, and with other advocates, to ensure that this policy is fair and free from bias.

We will also continue to be engaged in conversations around implementation, as it is still unclear how the public would be made aware that a hospital has adopted this policy.

Putting your wishes in writing

It is also important to note that decisions about medical care are not just in the hands of health care providers. You have the ability to put your wishes in writing as well.

While we call out the ageism surrounding this illness and loss of life, we would be remiss if we didn’t remind you that in somber times like this, it is important to know what your medical decisions are and to share them with your family and your medical practitioners.

There are many tools available for making your choices known, such as an advance directive, advanced care plan or the NJ POLST (Practitioners Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) form. For more resources, please visit our friends at the Goals of Care Coalition.

In the meantime, some ways that you can counteract ageism in your community would be to check on older loved ones, friends and neighbors. Remind them to be cautious, offer to pick up their groceries and pharmacy items or schedule a delivery for them. If you are able to do so, make a donation to a senior center or nutrition program like Meals on Wheels so they can continue to keep the seniors in their communities well fed and nourished — nutrition is essential to a good immune system.

And remember: We are all in this together, regardless of age, disability, race, gender … Even though these are trying times, find the positives and, if you can, offer help. Above all, be kind.

We’re in this together
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