KARL PILLEMER: I'm Karl Pillemer. I'm the Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development at Cornell. I'm also a faculty member in the division of geriatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine. So both of those roles have had me thinking a lot about the pandemic and issues around it. There are lots of practical issues that my field is dealing with. Many people are concerned, for example, about the rise of ageism, and how the fact that this disease is associated with older people is leading to ageist narratives.
People are very concerned about understanding how we protect older people who may, in fact, have to shelter in place until there is a vaccination. Not to scare anybody with that, but there are vulnerable people who may have to think about long-term self-isolation. How do we make that possible and palatable? So I think the field of gerontology and the related field of geriatrics are going to be kept extraordinarily busy, and we have a huge opportunity to marry science and service, in this case, that I think will really persist for years to come.
How will this change the world going forward? I think we're going to see radical shifts in some aspects of elder care. And the most important of these is nursing home care, that we've chosen in our society, unfortunately, to relegate the sickest older people into care situations that are, at best, challenging and difficult. And remember, there are over 1 and 1/2 million people in nursing homes. And an infection like this, to use a blunt term, cuts through them like a hot knife through butter. It's where the most vulnerable people are, and we, as yet, in this response to the virus have not really focused on protecting the most vulnerable.
And that really is coming back now to hurt us. So one thing is going to be how do we provide long-term care for people. Many people go to nursing homes for short-term rehabilitation. If there's a chance of infection, will they still want to go there? What about liability for these facilities? In long-term care, you must be in close proximity to provide care. You're feeding people, bathing them, changing wound dressings and so forth. So that whole system, I think, is going to have to change markedly, perhaps with a greater effort to maintain people in their own homes.
I am fearful that a change in society is going to be an increasing view of older people as frail, sick, weak, isolated, unable to live full and fulfilling lives. We're seeing a little bit of that narrative, but we are also seeing-- and I'll close with this point-- something wonderful, namely that younger people who are themselves at very low risk of the disease are self-isolating in order to protect other people. And I've spent my lifetime talking to older people, and I've talked to them extensively about how they've got through other crises, like World War II and the Great Depression. I even interviewed people 15 years ago who'd been to the Spanish influenza.
And they all say more or less the same thing-- being generous, helping others, trying to do whatever you can to have a good narrative when this is done, because you're going to be telling your kids about this in the same way that you listen to your grandparents talk about World War II endlessly. And you want a good narrative that casts you in a good light and shows how you helped other people. So I hope that sense of compassion and generosity might be something that persists after the crisis is done. This is a great time to reconnect in the ways that we can reconnect. So as you're watching this, do spend a moment to think how you can reach out to others, and especially to older people.
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Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University expert on older adults, predicts the pandemic will prompt a radical shift in elder care. Older people will increasingly stay in their own homes, rather than in nursing homes, which currently house more than 1.5 million people in the United States, he says. COVID-19 is particularly lethal in nursing homes; it spreads easily because caregivers feed and bathe residents in close proximity, and because older people are vulnerable to the disease.
Pillemer is the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development; he is also a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.