The tragedy of being old

    Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

    The passing away of an elderly person due to COVID-19 has woefully become a daily occurrence.  Sadly, these deaths have become another statistic or what Pope Francis aptly defines as, “anonymous deaths”.

    The victims are insensitively dismissed as having “underlying conditions”, suggesting that they would have died of other causes anyway.

    The Imperial College London carried out research into the causes of deaths of COVID-19. Their findings indicate that many of the victims were far from death’s door before they were infected. According to this study, the pandemic cut down at least a decade of an elderly person’s life.

    The pandemic has caught us unprepared.  It changed the daily routines, and the ability for the elderly to stay socially connected.

    A study published by the Economist Intelligence Unit earlier this year, ‘Scaling Healthy Ageing, Inclusive Environments and Financial security Today’,  concluded that even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 none of the world’s largest economies (G20), were fully prepared to support healthy, financially secure, socially connected older people. According to this study, whilst G20 countries perform best in providing healthcare systems they score low in providing inclusive social structures and institutions for the elderly.

    This weakness is especially evident in the vulnerability of the nursing home system to the coronavirus. The restrictions set on their freedom of movement and on family visits to minimise infection risks has hit the residents hard. Their mental and psychological health as well as their general wellbeing risk serious harm from a prolonged period of isolation.

    Many nursing homes are like medical wards and restrict freedom of movement. This, to some extent, is unavoidable for elderly people who are highly dependent and in need of constant care. However, the hospital ward-like design cannot provide for freedom of movement and empowerment for those who enjoy a level of independence. The quality of life and dignity offered to them through this type of setup leaves a lot to be desired.

    Maltese care homes, some of which are converted hotels, as well as most of the homes that were purposely built, are crammed and fail to provide modern deinstitutionalised facilities. The lack of open areas, privacy and space, are at times claustrophobic and contribute towards the residents’ agitation and restlessness.

    The Government of Malta offers several services under the banner of “Active Ageing”. This conceptual framework contemplates the different forms through which older people remain active in their communities and lead an independent lifestyle.  However, the seemingly comprehensive list of services on offer are heavily loaded with bureaucratic processes. They fail to offer a holistic approach towards effective community care and broader social needs, especially for low income and vulnerable people.

    Governments need to change their approach towards the care of the elderly, from one of cost containment and fancy labels, to one that has a more holistic approach towards the quality of life.

    Families need to do their part and treat their elderly with dignity and not as a burden or a social case.

    In his latest encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”, Pope Francis cautions us that “together with the relegation of the elderly to a sad and lonely existence, is a subtle way of stating that it is all about us, that our individual concerns are the only thing that matters… by isolating the elderly and leaving them in the care of others without the closeness and concern of family members, we disfigure and impoverish the family itself.”

    The pandemic has, in a most painful but effective way, opened old wounds, and posed fundamental questions about how we should organise care for the elderly, and more broadly, how we look at ageing in society. We are all equally responsible for ensuring that our dearest enjoy a meaningful life and the quality of life they deserve.

    Claudio Farrugia

    Catholic Voices Malta