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Clemente Writings

Disposable People

The following quote has been attributed to both Mahatma Gandhi and former President Hubert Humphrey: “The measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members.” Regardless of who actually said it, there rings a tenor of truth that many souls hear.

Those of us fortunate to be citizens of First World countries often think our society is measured abundantly because of how we treat our most vulnerable members. Is it true? If you consider how the elderly in America’s nursing homes were and are being treated during the 2020 COVID-19 crisis, the answer is no.

According to a May 14, 2020, editorial in The Washington Post, the residents and staff in U.S. nursing homes accounted for “more than a third of the COVID-19 deaths.” Unfortunately, in today’s warp-speed news cycle, it’s a number gone unnoticed by many Americans.

But it isn’t just a number. It is us. Human beings: equal, precious, torturous and stunning in both cruel deeds and noble accomplishments. The people who died in nursing homes from COVID-19 were not disposable members of society who outlived their usefulness; they were simply us at a different stage in life.

Though this complex world lends itself to uncertainty, the value we place on a human life is strict: either every single one is priceless, or none of them is. Relative morality need not apply.

Sometimes, all that matters is money: Is it cost-efficient to treat someone with fewer years left? Other times, it is about convenience: ‘Why should I visit or care when I’m not even recognized?’

Just a few years ago, my mother lived and died in the same nursing home recently described as the location of the second highest death rate from COVID-19 in western Massachusetts. The home is in a suburb of the third largest city in Massachusetts. While the suburb had an extremely low infection rate, the city did not and that is where many of the staff live.

When my mother was there, my father went every day, sometimes twice, and my siblings and I went several times a week. Even during the pre-pandemic time, we noticed the home’s gradual decline. There were fewer activities for residents, and the regular outings happening when my mother first arrived trickled down to none.

During one, typically humid New England summer, the air conditioning stopped working. When a couple days passed and the home grew hotter, my father was forceful that it be resolved immediately. The next day the home had portable air conditioning units that, while inefficient in such a large facility, still took some of the humidity out and made it more comfortable to breathe.

My family regularly paid cash to the aides and assistants so our mother would get better care. There was also one of us there every day of the week, and I suspect this created a feeling among the staff that they were being watched.

They were.

Since our mother’s death, we continue to frequent this nursing home because of the close bonds formed with the people and the very place itself.

This is where our mother lived; this is where we watched her draw her last breath.

Some of the residents have no one to advocate for them. They only have family show up on a holiday or other special occasions. This is never enough time to understand the inner workings of what goes on anywhere.

The Dalai Lama said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” This love and compassion must be extended to the entire human race, no matter what stage of life an individual may occupy. Simply remembering the people often pushed aside and forgotten is not enough. We must have a strict reckoning within ourselves in order for action to follow.

JM Mars is a student in New England.

We, Too, Are America is made possible through “Democracy and the Informed Citizen,” an initiative administered by the Federation of State Humanities Council through a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

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