As Massachusetts residents wait in anticipation for an escalated reopening of the state in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a group of us lives in fear we will continue being the demographic with the highest casualties of the virus. We were not visible before COVID-19, and we are not being included in important policies to protect our lives now. We are the neglected group called the senior independent-living population.
While independence may imply an accurate degree of self-sufficiency in contrast to assisted-living and nursing home populations, the vulnerabilities of this community cannot be underestimated. Many of us are living with underlying medical conditions limiting our physical capacity.
Seniors residing in independent-living communities, most of whom exceed 80, are being overlooked by current COVID-19 policies. The 80-plus age group represents approximately 276,000 out of an estimated 6.9 million Massachusetts residents, and the current mortality rate from COVID-19 for this group is roughly 28 percent. Data released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health indicates that 58 percent of the overall mortality rate for the state is the result of deaths from long-term care facilities. This number would undoubtedly be higher if independent-living communities were included in the long-term care numbers.
We live in an independent-living community that shares the same building with an assisted-living community, separated by unlocked doors. But because laws and policies govern independent living differently, our group is not represented by COVID-19 guidelines that apply to other populations.
It is a flawed view to isolate this group. We share many resources with assisted living, including staff, aides, and common facilities, such as the kitchen. COVID-19 cross contamination poses a significant risk for all residents. The virus has infected residents and aides in both communities. Yet the National Guard tested only the assisted-living residents for COVID-19 because this population was covered under state testing policies. From various inquiries, we know of no independent-living community that has been tested by the National Guard.
independent-living residents can get a test for COVID-19 if they get a doctor’s prescription and can travel to an external testing site. The problem is that most of us do not drive, and leaving our apartments exposes us to serious risk. This is not effective from the perspectives of public health and infection control. Once COVID-19 enters a facility, it needs to be stopped immediately.
The senior population is potentially at greater risk given the high percentage of COVID-19 asymptomatic carriers. If seniors are truly a priority, then the state needs a plan and solutions for protecting all of them. Without a blueprint, exponentially more deaths in this population can be expected.
Independent living, as structured communities within mixed-care facilities, need special guidance and regulations under the pandemic. As seniors overall and especially populations living in dense communities are at the greatest risk for COVID-19, all residents of public and private senior facilities need to be prioritized for testing as a method of prevention and as a response to outbreaks in their communities.
The members of the independent-living community, like other senior communities, have contributed to society in so many different ways. Individuals who have given life, sustenance, and vital services to future generations are now being abandoned. This is the very definition of neglect.
Patricia J. Burns is former assistant country director of Botswana PEPFAR at Harvard School of Public Health. Herman Chernoff is professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. Jerome I. Friedman is professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1990. Wilfred E. Holton is professor emeritus at Northeastern University and past president of Massachusetts Life Care Residents Association.