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Navigating COVID-19 – compassion or ageism? | Guest View

Series: Coronavirus | Story 220

Last updated 6/3/2020 at 7:57am

When Gov. Jay Inslee issued the stay-at-home order in March due to COVID-19, the Edmonds Senior Center suspended all our programs. The message from the Centers for Disease Control was clear – the key to flattening the exponential rate of infection was social distancing. People were asked to stay at home.

Our focus shifted to ways we could support our seniors while they sheltered at home. Within days, we were delivering lunches seven days a week, offering grocery shopping and delivery, and providing counseling and nurse consultation by phone.

Weeks later, we were making check-in calls to all our members, offering our first online classes, and providing tech support to get connected.

Today, with more than 100,000 deaths in the country from COVID -19, the fact that 80% of those deaths are age 65 or older is sobering.

Like small businesses, nonprofits are also preparing to reopen services in a manner that aligns with both the governor's four-phased approach and the mayor's "Play It Safe" plan. Senior Centers have an additional challenge since people 65 years of age or older have been identified as "high risk populations."

Recently we announced we were seeking volunteers under 65 to help in the Thrift Store (once we move into the governor's Phase 2). I was surprised to receive a message from a member saying that replacing older volunteers with younger volunteers was ageism, and as a result, they would be ending their membership and their support of the Senior Center.

For a senior center that celebrates, honors, and protects its seniors, the accusation of ageism felt like a punch in the gut. This came on the heels of a comment from a respected colleague who suggested that Washington state's response to the pandemic was discriminatory in labeling all people age 65-plus as "vulnerable" and limiting their right to self-determination.

Is our response to the pandemic discriminatory against seniors or a compassionate attempt to protect them?

The World Health Organization defines ageism as stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people based on their age. The Age Discrimination Act passed in 2004 makes it unlawful to discriminate against people because of their age in employment, the provision of goods, services, and housing.

Even though age 65 is when you qualify for Social Security, we know it is not the magic number when you suddenly become "old." People age differently. Farrell Fleming, who served as our beloved executive director of the Senior Center until April 15 and now serves in a senior consulting role, is 79.

Fifteen of our 21 board members are 65 years of age or older (four are over 80). They make up the dynamic and high-functioning governing body that oversees the Senior Center.

Public safety policy, by nature, is applied broadly not individually. Admittedly, it would be difficult for a 65-year-old to be expected to stay at home until phase 4 because they have been deemed "vulnerable" among the 65-and-older population while their 64-year-old spouse is free to leave the house.

Public safety policy is informed by data to establish the guardrails to protect the general public.

Non-smoking laws, bike helmets, and seatbelts are all public safety policies designed to protect not restrict. It is all about the motive.

The motive for sheltering at home is to save lives, not to discriminate.

Our policy at the Senior Center for reopening our services:

@ Our members' safety is our top priority;

@ To revamp as many of our services as possible to accommodate our members who are staying at home; and

@ To reopen services based on the governor and mayor's plans. We will not offer programs that require seniors to leave their homes to participate until phase 4.

These policies are not intended to be discriminatory, but rather the best evidence-based approach to keep our members safe.

Just to clear the air, we are not replacing our senior volunteers with younger ones. We are building an army of volunteers of all ages. During the pandemic we are calling on our volunteers under 65 to deliver meals and work in the thrift store.

Serving seniors is in our DNA. That will never change. However, we feel we can offer a better experience for seniors and the rest of the community by bringing different generations together.

When I started with the Senior Center more than five years ago, Capital Campaign Co-Chair Rose Cantwell said, "Society has segmented the community by age; young families, older adults and youth."

She went on to say, "We had it wrong. Communities are stronger when you have different ages come together."

That sentiment set in motion what will become the Edmonds Waterfront Center: a place where seniors can enjoy their favorite programs, while at the same time, intergenerational programs will be offered for those who want to participate.

It will be a place for all ages to gather, learn, celebrate, and grow together.

In navigating the pandemic and beyond, we are committed to engaging, lifting up and protecting our seniors not diminishing or limiting their vast potential.

Daniel Johnson is CEO of the Edmonds Senior Center | Edmonds Waterfront Center.


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