In this global pandemic, be charitable and stay home

Aaron Lambert

There can no longer be any doubt about it — with COVID-19, we are living through a historic pandemic, one that requires swift action and societal cooperation. To think otherwise would be foolish.

Here in Colorado, our normal daily routines and facets of everyday life have altered drastically over the past two weeks. Store shelves usually fully-stocked have been bare. Movie theaters are closed. Schools are closed. Restaurants are closed or offering take-out or delivery only (for now). Many people have lost their jobs. Virtually every single large public gathering and event has been cancelled or suspended. And as Catholics have painfully had to accept, that includes the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

The response to this decision by the bishops of Colorado has been mixed. Some have taken to email and social media comments to express their frustration with the decision, arguing that it is a cowardly thing to do and accusing the Church of bending to secular whims. Others have expressed support and solidarity with the decision, painful as it may be, because the seriousness of this pandemic underscores the need to be adaptable and flexible.

It’s easy to turn to anger and frustration in these uncertain times. Sunday Mass serves as a constant for many of us each week, and a reassurance that no matter what kind of week we’ve had, the Lord is always waiting for us in the liturgy. When that solace is stripped from us, the natural response is sorrow masked with anger.

And while it seems easy enough to offer alternatives, such as allowing those more at risk to skip Mass and allowing those who are healthy to still attend, such suggestions are not adequate in these times. If we are to heed the directives outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the various other medical experts who have weighed in, then we must accept that daily life in society, and subsequently the Church, is going to look a lot different for the foreseeable future.

The facts

As prominent health and government officials have reiterated over the past couple of weeks and and continue to reiterate, this outbreak is something that needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Here are the facts: As of this writing on March 24, there are over 400,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, and over 18,000 deaths. In the U.S., there are nearly 53,000 confirmed cases with 684 deaths. And in our own backyard here in Colorado, we have 720 confirmed cases with 11 deaths.

Now, these numbers may not seem drastic when compared to the grand scheme of things, but being a people of reason, we can surmise the potential for disaster by looking at other examples of countries who did not act quickly enough. Sadly, Italy is completely overwhelmed with the rampant spread of the virus. News reports from the country paint a dire picture of desperation.

Because Italy didn’t act quickly enough and enact social distancing measures, their healthcare system is being stretched to its limits and on the verge of collapse. Doctors are having to make impossible decisions of which patients can still be helped, and which ones are beyond saving. Nurses on the frontline are calling the situation akin to a war.

The reality is that if people don’t start taking this outbreak seriously, the U.S. could very rapidly be in a similar situation. Consider that on Feb. 21, Italy had zero confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the course of one month, over 53,000 confirmed cases were reported with nearly 5,000 deaths. This is why the entire states of California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and over 10 others have enacted shelter-in-place measures (Editor’s Note: And now Colorado, too). This means one in four Americans are being ordered to stay indoors.

This all sounds very alarmist, but again, being a people of reason, we must look at the facts. This is a virus that doesn’t discriminate. Young and old alike are being infected and brought close to the edge of death or past it. While preliminary data shows that elderly and those with underlying conditions are at higher risk, the CDC recently contended that 40% of patients sick enough to require hospitalization were aged 20 to 54.

Now is not the time for people to be cavalier about this. This is compounded by the fact that some people are asymptomatic, meaning they could be carrying it and not even know it.

In a recent interview with Wired, Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped defeat smallpox, summed it up rather succinctly: “It’s the most dangerous pandemic in our lifetime.”

Canceling Mass: An act of charity

When presented with these facts about COVID-19 and more, the bishops of Colorado have done what any good shepherd would do: they did what was necessary for the common good to protect the most vulnerable members of their flock.

In light of all of this, the suspension of public Masses should be seen as an act of charity more than anything else. As Catholics, we champion the dignity of life from conception until natural death. And the fact of the matter is that if we were to unknowingly infect one of our fellow parishioners with COVID-19 and they died from it, that would not be a natural death.

This is an unprecedented time in human history. And it’s in times like these that the Church has a profound opportunity to do what Christ commissioned her to do: serve those most in need and love our neighbors. To do so requires sacrifice, and at this moment in history, we as Catholics are being called to something greater than ourselves.

It is a strange irony that this “greater calling” is participating in the Mass from our own homes rather than at our parishes. But if the Church truly is the mystical body of Christ, then the communion that exists while kneeling next to each other in the pews still exists within the walls of our homes.

In the coming weeks and months, you can expect to see stories of how the Church is being impacted through all of this. You can also expect to see stories of the many ways in which Denver Catholics will live out this calling and step up to love our neighbors most in need through this challenging time.

Until the government mandates it, some will continue to disregard the seriousness of this situation and the urgent need to practice social distancing, starting right now. We at the Denver Catholic are urging you: please stay home and resist the temptation to act as though we are not living through a global pandemic. It is for your own good and the good of our local, national and global neighbors.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.