COVID and Our Elders: My Personal Journey

Next month, we are presenting a learning event in partnership with the GOSW Collaborative for Older Adults that will focus on the impact of COVID on our elders. For 2 years, GOSW has been working with this group of funders who have prioritized being in service to elders in our community. As we prepared for this event, I realized that much of what they have shared with me over the years had shifted from a professional space to one that is deeply personal. My view of what it meant to be an older adult occupied a spectrum that went from rarely thinking about it, to the assumption that I had a much longer runway before it became an issue in my life. That is until the fall of 2019. 

I first noticed changes in my parents 5 years ago when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body Syndrome (the Parkinson’s adjacent form of dementia).  A slight wobble in her gait steadily graduated to the use of a cane and a walker. All the while, my dad, her primary caregiver, became her occasional co-conspirator in shielding me from the reality of what was happening; but he himself was beginning to  show signs of memory loss. As time went on, the changes in my mom’s health began to include frequent falls and increasing confusion. My dad’s memory issues also evolved rapidly. Over the course of a year, he escalated from requiring Post-it notes as reminders, to the day that he got lost and spent 15 hours driving in a large circle, just 3 miles from their home.

Despite all the signs pointing toward a major shift in their abilities, my parent’s independence was still very important to them, and my plea that they sell their house in California and move closer to us as they aged, went unanswered. Looking back, I should have known better. In Black culture (and likely in many others), it doesn’t matter that I am a grown, middle-aged woman. The decision of how their house was run, was not, nor would it ever be, my business.

Unfortunately, our family norms were challenged when a fall sent my mother to the emergency room and eventually a rehab facility. And simultaneously, on his way back from visiting her, my dad drove 2 hours away from the direction of their home at rush hour and ended up in San Francisco where he side-swiped another car. These events made it very clear to our entire family that the era of my parents managing their household on their own was over. Later that day, we were on a plane to California to bring them “home” to Oregon.

Frankly, there are dozens of stories that I could share with you about the challenges of navigating this process. There are so many hurdles to overcome when making the strange transition between being the “child” and becoming the “parent”. But that is for another day. What is important to note at this critical moment, is how COVID changed EVERYTHING in the lives of older adults, which eventually included my mom and dad.

When COVID took hold of our country in March of 2020, my parents had finally begun to settle into their memory care facility. They had a rhythm and a routine, and we were able to come and go at any time of the day or night to spend time with them. But when the world shut down and we huddled together in “pods” representing our immediate households, protecting our elders took on a different dimension. Whether they were in their own homes or in memory care communities like my mom and dad, isolation as a means of protection became a matter of life or death. However, our ability to show them love, reassurance, and at times, offer staunch advocacy for their rights, was shuttered along with our cities and towns.

This lack of control was then compounded by the data that highlighted the disproportionate number of our elders, especially those from BIPOC communities, who contracted and died of this disease. According to the CDC, 8 out of 10 people who died of COVID-19 were 65 years and older, and more than half were BIPOC. Knowing this data quickly brought my parent’s Blackness to the surface. Their risk of contracting COVID as older Black people, as it is in so many social determinants of health, jumped up exponentially. With each passing day, we held our breath until we got not one, but two of those calls that we all dread: in July it was “your father is in the hospital and he has COVID” and then again in November it was, “a staff person has tested positive for COVID and now your mom has it too.”

Miraculously, neither of my parents had any COVID-related symptoms, and they both survived without any lingering effects that we are aware of. But receiving those calls was terrifying, and the added notion that they both ticked the boxes for risk factors that often led to death from COVID is a feeling that I don’t think I can ever fully describe. Let’s face it, in 2020, the story of an 83-year-old Black man and an 82-year-old Black woman, both living in a memory care facility with dementia and COVID rarely ends well. I am clear that it was the support from the people in our lives and, most importantly, having access to healthcare and other resources, that helped them survive the virus. This, however, is not true for everyone, especially BIPOC elders. For many older people facing COVID, their families may not have the capacity to do what we were able to do, and the skyrocketing numbers of deaths of people in communities of color due to COVID proves that we still have a lot of work to do to protect our elders from this virus.

As I noted at the beginning of this piece, my worldview has changed because of this experience. These days, I am not only a daughter and a caregiver for two older adults, but I am a staunch advocate on behalf of our elders. The western world tends to render elders invisible or reduce them to being unnecessary or lacking purpose. Yet, older adults are deeply embedded in our lives as they are both the links to our histories and lineage, and for many of us, they are the backbones of our family systems. They also play a significant role in the issues and areas that our philanthropic community supports like providing childcare, education, and supportive parenting, so this subject is not limited to those who do this work. It is my hope that by sharing my experience, I might shine a light on the important efforts of our members in the GOSW Collaborative for Older Adults. My story is one of many, but I hope that it will encourage you to come to hear more from your colleagues who are funding this important topic that certainly intersects with yours. Please join us for “Older Adults and What COVID Revealed” on February 10, 2021. I look forward to seeing you there, and thanks for listening.