Photo by National Cancer Institute
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Humanize From Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism

Reimagining Home Life Instead of Warehousing Our Elders

How many of us are separated from our mothers and fathers not because of the coronavirus precisely, but rather because of the way we’ve chosen to build our home life? We have spent the past half century progressively segregating ourselves in America by age. Whereas multi-generational households were once common, now they seem generally to be the exception.

We have embraced a cultural default of segregating our elderly, starting with 55+ communities and ending with nursing homes. I don’t meant to suggest a grand conspiracy; our wealth has allowed us to make these choices. But my point is that I think these cultural and economic choices have not been net positive developments in American life — as much because they remove grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, etc. from being regularly present to their youngest relatives as because these choices naturally lead to some degree of intergenerational alienation. And alienation makes us more fragile as a people, when what we want is to become antifragile, particularly in confronting shocks like this pandemic.

I was thinking on this on Mother’s Day and will probably be thinking on it again on Father’s Day. J.D. Vance tweeted over the weekend on the way the virus sweeps through nursing homes:

And if you’ve been following this aspect of the virus issue closely, it’s not news to you that where the outbreaks began in earnest in the United States in both Seattle and New York hit nursing homes and elder care facilities the hardest. David Marshall writes:

John Zmirak wrote a piece here a week ago provocatively entitled “Why is Andrew Cuomo Killing Patients in Nursing Homes?” Zmirak imagined Cuomo as a member of a cargo cult, aping Judeo-Christian values by saying “If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” But then his Department of Health issued a decree perversely demanding that infected persons be admitted to nursing homes, no questions asked:

“No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the NH [nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.” And now thousands have died in New York State nursing homes.

I suspect Cuomo’s error arises not from malice, but from the left hand not knowing what the far left hand is doing. Old folks may be threatened more by stupidity and laziness than by outright cruelty.

I understand that not everyone can or should pursue the goal of building an intergenerational home. I get it: some personalities turn out to be like oil and water, and some distance or separation can be healthy and necessary. I’m not writing to address the exceptions, however.

I’m writing to suggest that a lesson from this pandemic is that it makes sense to embrace a greater vision of home life. We should pursue the building of greater homes, and by that I don’t mean the physical structures so much as the culture of home as a place of welcome, respite, and community across generations. I grew up in such a home and have benefited from the experience in ways large and small my entire life.

A greater home life would be one where we prioritize presence over absence and proximity over distance. A greater home life would be the experience of daily life enriched by the varieties and riches that mothers and fathers, grandparents and relatives, bring to the table when they’re physically able to come to the same table. It shouldn’t look the same in every community; in some places it might look like the return of in-laws suites or cottages, in other places it might look like grandparents moving into the adjacent condo, and in other places it might look like relatives living in the same neighborhood and fostering common experiences that such closeness would make possible.

We can care for one another in better ways that our elder communities and nursing-homes-as-a-default culture suggests.

When we see images of sons and daughters, or elder spouses, standing outside the windows of their loved one’s nursing home window, unable to come any closer lest they expose the entire elder community to potential sickness and death, we see solidarity. But we also see the tragedy of the cultural/social choices we’ve been making for how we’re building our home life and what we’re prioritizing. And in that way, those images are an indictment as much as a reason for hope.

There are responsibilities, too, that we’re avoiding because our wealth allows us to do so. To be human is to be relational. We possess autonomy, but it is a relative autonomy, because we did not bring ourselves into this life. What responsibilities might we be eschewing as elders when we cloister ourselves off from family and friends in our age-restricted communities? And what responsibilities as sons and daughters might we be eschewing when we allow our parents and elder relatives to feel alone, isolated, or literally locked away because we haven’t yet been brave enough to ask them to join us and share in the life of our home?

These are, naturally, deeply personal concerns — but note that they’re truly personal, in the sense of relating to persons, and that means that the choices any of us make implicate all the others in our lives and eventually become cultural and social in nature, too.

The question is whether we learn from this time, and better prepare ourselves for the inevitable shocks of the future.

Tom Shakely

Research Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Tom Shakely is a Research Fellow with Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism where he focuses on human dignity, human rights, and law and policy. Tom has spoken on human rights issues at the United Nations, testified to the District of Columbia City Council on conscience rights, and advised on testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and U.S. House of Representatives.