New York Times: Pandemic Leads to Rise in Nursing Home Suicide Attempts

A new column in the New York Times discusses what the author calls a “rapidly growing phenomenon” in nursing homes and assisted living facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic: “lives stripped of human contact, meaningful activity, purpose and hope that things will get better in a time frame that is relevant to people in the last decades or years of life.” The most extreme cases of  this phenomenon involve “startling numbers of suicide attempts by older adults,” according to the author, a professor of medicine in San Francisco.

The suffering of elder Americans documented over the last few months includes deaths by neglect and starvation, hopelessness, and patients suffering from dementia “fighting draconian restrictions they cannot understand” and being sedated as a result, the column states. It cites one assisted living facility whose director said that after it ended group meals and activities, as well as visitors, its resident population experienced an increase in depression symptoms and suicidal thinking, and that more residents were “complaining of weakness and muscle atrophy, and more have had falls.” The author notes that suicide in elder care facilities was already increasing before the pandemic, arguing that circumstances are now “worse—much worse.”

While older adults who live at home may have the advantages of outdoor exercise and digital activities, “poorer people are less likely to have access to safe walks or digital solutions, and  they are more likely to live in smaller apartments or homes. And increasing numbers of older Americans live at home.” This is compounded by the enhanced risk of death from Covid-19 for elderly people, which compels many who could go outside to instead stay in. The author concludes that authorities advising citizens to stay inside are wrongfully treating the virus as “the only threat to health and well-being,” when elder citizens face other psychological threats that may be fatal for some.

The author describes one person in their 70s telling her, “If there were some end to this that I could look forward to, it would be more bearable… I look ahead to a year or more and I am devastated… Those authorities seem to have no indication of what such a future means for some of us.” She also cites someone who said on Twitter, “My dad… was moved into a memory care home last fall, and was greatly comforted by having his one trusted home aide with him there ‘visiting’/caregiving every day. Since quarantine took effect, he is not doing well at all… his level of agitation and decline—and agitation/confusion—seems inhumane.” That person died “earlier this month,” according to the author, not of Covid-19 but “surely… as a result of the pandemic.”

How to address the suffering containment causes among elderly Americans? The author first advises people to wear masks properly when outside and respect social distancing limits. She also advises people of every age to contact elderly people in their lives, and to involve them in their lives if possible. She recommends volunteering for social service or health organizations that serve elderly communities, and advocating for Congressional leaders to provide testing and personal protective equipment to elder care facilities, and to investigate the nursing home lobby’s influence over public response to the pandemic. She finally recommends that nursing homes and assisted living facilities offer their residents “small group walks with masks and social distancing,” that they allow the use of outdoor areas for distanced conversations and exercise, and that they provide all residents with the digital tools they need to reach family and friends.

“Each of these steps,” the author concludes, “offer not only practical help but something at least as important: Hope that life will improve in the not too distant future.”

The attorneys at the Law Offices of Thomas L. Gallivan, PLLC work diligently to protect the rights of nursing home residents.  Please contact us to discuss in the event you have a potential case involving neglect or abuse.

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