Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

With COVID-19 variants still punching long-term care staff in the face every day, it’s understandable for us to sometimes lose the ability to get our arms around the sheer scope of collective sadness we’ve witnessed over the past two years. 

But a recent statistic shocked me in a way I didn’t think I could be shocked anymore. One in every 100 older Americans aged 65 or over has died of COVID-19

All along, we’ve known the virus kills seniors disproportionately — 75% of the nearly 850,000 U.S. pandemic deaths since it began. But that number is so large, I’ve found it almost a numbing abstraction. One in 100, on the other hand, defines the losses in starkly relatable terms.

The news report touting that figure had popped up on my phone as I prepared to board a turboprop flight from Seattle to Canada over the holidays, and I thought about it as I took my seat — how the toll was equivalent to one among the passengers seated around me, or one of those in the security line I had just waited in. 

Now I continue to find comparisons everywhere I look. One person of those I passed while returning some pants to the mall, one of the drive-through customers in an afternoon at a busy Taco Bell, or one in every theater showing Spider-Man. 

Especially for those delivering direct care in long-term care facilities, that accruing burden of death and grief, rooted in the loss of one beloved resident after another in the grim early days before vaccines came along, is a heavy burden to bear. It comes with fond memories and beautiful, familiar faces, not as an incomprehensible statistic. And even now, as the casualties continue to mount and the future remains unclear, it’s no wonder many are filled with exhaustion and despair. 

But if anyone knows what it’s like to live with loss and fear of what’s next, it’s author Kate Bowler, who in 2015, without warning at the age of only 35, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Suddenly she had to ponder unimaginable questions and seek elusive answers, and in her latest book, “No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear),” she searches for a way forward.

“Nothing will exempt me from the pain of being human,” she writes from deep personal experience. “We live and we are loved and we are gone.” In another passage, she speaks achingly in language with which every front-line staff member can identify. “We lose people before we can learn to live without them.”  

Looking forward, Bowler speaks to the precarious unknown we all face, and sees simple acceptance as a key survival strategy. “History is made by people who stared, blinking, into the uncertain future,” she says. “Our lives are not problems to be solved. We can have meaning and beauty and love, but nothing even close to resolution.”

“Time really is a circle; I can see that now,” she concludes. “We are trapped between a past we can’t return to and a future that is uncertain. And it takes guts to live here, in the hard space between anticipation and realization.”

That’s one thing long-term care staff have shown in ample supply over the past two years: guts. And incredible resilience. They don’t know what’s going to happen, but they know why they’re here. Beyond the heartache, they feel deeply the privilege of having served at the bedside of every senior taken by this cruel enemy while in their care.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a two-time national Silver Medalist and three-time regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program, as well as an Award of Excellence honoree in the APEX Awards. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a writer and video producer for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.