Nowhere safe to rest: Nursing homes in the pandemic

It's long past time to put our communities first, and our nursing homes are depending on it. 


Jamie Friedman

Policy Associate

On March 13th, 2020, my world, like yours, turned upside down. Like most college seniors, I was initially devastated to learn that in a matter of days I was expected to pack up my stuff, say my goodbyes and leave the small town on the prairie that I had grown to love and care for. But despite my disappointment, there was one reason why I didn’t question for a second the college’s decision to send us all home: our collective goal of protecting the most vulnerable members of our community, our nursing home residents.

For over a century, my small college town has been a safe haven for the elderly. As the story goes, the founder wanted to create a community where older professors and ministers could pass down knowledge to young people, safely secluded in the corn fields, united by a fervor for learning. The town was nicknamed ‘Saint’s Rest’; subsequently that name was passed on to our coffee shop, where students, professors and nursing home residents gathered to study and connect with one another – until the pandemic hit.

And so as we left, I felt secure in the thought that if any town in America would be left untouched by this horrible virus, it would be ours. But not a town in the world was left untouched. And all three nursing homes in our town have since had outbreaks, with staff and residents alike falling ill.

In one of those homes, over 90 percent of residents tested positive by the end of May. Shortly after the outbreak, more than half of their residents passed away.

Measuring death in terms of statistics is a way to distance ourselves from a tragedy. In my little town, 33 families who entrusted their loved ones to the care of a nursing home, a promised safe haven, lost someone and were unable to have a proper funeral – or even a real goodbye. There were likely more families affected by staff members who brought the illness home. Loss of this magnitude has a profound impact in a close-knit community. And yet, this story is only a drop in the bucket of national and international grief that we, our friends, and fellow humans have experienced this past year. Just writing about it hurts.

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I didn’t know how bad things had gotten in my college town until, months later, I found myself working on data for a report on nursing homes. At first, as I added up the numbers of facilities with PPE shortages and staff shortages by state and nationwide, the rising numbers were not much more than that – numbers. I focused on the systemic nature of the problem – that government and industry failings at all levels resulted in chronic shortages, leaving nursing homes defenseless.

That conclusion is absolutely true. But it’s not the full story.

I analyzed the issue, just as you would solve a math problem. But then I came across the data for my little town. I began to look up obituaries, to see if I recognized any names or faces from my Saturday mornings in Saints Rest. I began to read everyone’s stories, about their lives and passions and the loved ones they left behind. I was only tangentially related to these stories, through the shared experience of a town. But sitting here halfway across the country, I was reminded of why we all went home, why we’re doing all of this in the first place. It wasn’t just to protect ourselves or our own grandparents; it was to protect our communities as a whole.

To conclude that the problem is systemic is to stop short of the truth. If we allow ourselves to believe the problem is just systemic, then we slough off the responsibility that we need to feel as individuals. It’s legitimate to be angry at politicians, but it’s wrong to let ourselves off the hook for how our actions impact our own neighbors.

Government needs to take action to address the big picture, because that is what the government is for. We absolutely need policies that will solve the problem at the state and national level, such as paying nursing home staff hazard pay and addressing the obstacles in the PPE and vaccination supply chain.

But we as individuals also have an obligation: to protect our own communities. Our elders, both in and out of nursing homes, are relying on us. As backwards as it may seem, the best thing we can do to be good members of our community right now and for the coming months is to disconnect from our communities physically, while keeping them at the forefront of our minds. This solution is nothing new, but it’s worth being reminded of, if, like me, you find yourself forgetting who it is we’re fighting for.

The founder of my college town created a safe haven for elderly people to retire, to rest, while at the same time sharing their wisdom with the rest of us. Every older person deserves such a haven, whether in a big city, a small town, in independent housing or in a nursing home. It’s long past time for all of us to return to our mindset of a year ago, and put our communities first.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay


Jamie Friedman

Policy Associate

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