"You can't lock down the elderly forever and isolate them forever, and I don't think our country has thought through humane approaches that give the elderly not simply protection, but also company and love and accompaniment," Towey said.
He juxtaposed the care for the elderly in the U.S. with the situation in Italy. While the country saw high death rates among the elderly during the pandemic, there has also been a campaign by young people to send supportive calls and video messages to elderly residents in isolation. The Catholic "Youth for Peace" movement has organized the campaign, also collecting supplies for elderly residents.
Towey called for a national initiative in the U.S. to rethink elder care during the pandemic-including "how we can change practices immediately" to remedy the "starvation that the elderly are experiencing in the way of human contact."
"I think the United States is lagging behind," he said, noting that the isolation faced by elderly residents-along with anecdotes of them being denied access to ventilators at intensive care units- reflects a societal utilitarian view of human beings, that you're valuable if you're useful. And many feel that our elderly aren't useful."
At the outset of the pandemic, ethicists warned against state and local triage plans that would discriminate against the elderly and the disabled. Care should be rationed on an ethical basis and must not be denied those who are deemed to have a lesser "quality of life" on a utilitarian basis, ethicists told CNA.
The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) warned that it would be watching for any age or disability-based discrimination during the pandemic. The office successfully prodded Alabama to update its controversial triage plan and exclude problematic provisions.
Some public officials, such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), have been criticized for state policies that allowed COVID-positive patients to be discharged from hospitals into nursing homes.
Although New York reversed that policy last spring, Cuomo's administration is under federal investigation for its handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. An aide admitted that the administration tried to hide the nursing home death count from the federal government.
The general isolation or neglect of the elderly, Towey said, is all part of the "throwaway culture" condemned by Pope Francis
"I think Pope Francis has properly focused on the disproportionate impact that COVID has had on the elderly, far beyond the fatality count," he said.
"It's damaging to the social fabric that ties us all together," he said.
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