It's time to help seniors return to their golden years

 

Frank Lloyd Wright, an American architect and writer, once wrote, “The longer I live the more beautiful life becomes.” 

Their later years, their “golden years,” are ones seniors have looked forward to for a long time. This is a period of their life to enjoy moments of relaxation with friends and family, look ahead to making new memories, participate in new experiences and reflect on the accomplishments of their lives. 

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But these days are certainly not how seniors imagined their glory days. The COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world is the worst public health crisis in more than a century, and seniors have been hit the hardest. And while too many politicians covet the senior vote during an election, seniors are often forgotten once the polls close. That’s wrong and needs to change, especially as we fight to end the COVID-19 crisis.

Here’s the reality: Our seniors are the most susceptible to the worst effects of this terrible virus. More than 270,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 out of 10 deaths have been adults 65 years and older. That same age group is also five times more likely to be hospitalized than younger Americans.

We know the 1.4 million seniors who live in nursing homes have been especially impacted by the pandemic. Many nursing homes have had to shut their doors to visitors, meaning at most residents can only talk to their loved ones through apps like Zoom or Facetime or through a bedroom window. Tragically, more than a quarter of COVID-19 deaths in this country have been among nursing home residents, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

Other seniors have stayed in their houses, unable to go to a restaurant, visit a movie theater, play their bingo or spend time with their friends and relatives. The National Council on Aging reported in October that the number one need for older Americans is to stay socially connected. It’s been heartbreaking to see my parents — who are in their mid-90s — have to stay home to stay safe, away from their friends.  

Financially, seniors have not been spared. Before the pandemic began, nearly 1 in 3 seniors were economically insecure, living at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, and that has surely worsened since our economy shut down earlier this year. And during this recession, seniors said that affording basic expenses, such as food, prescriptions and housing, is one of their top worries.

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A few months ago, I held a series of tele-town halls with seniors living in my district in southwest Michigan focused on COVID-19. So many of them expressed their frustrations, concerns and challenges. It was sad. Their golden years have turned dark. As we move forward as a country, we need to do better to listen to our seniors and support, protect and care for them.  

Among the priorities the next Congress should focus on are efforts to protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. 

We must expand telehealth services. I have supported legislation to do just that during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Seniors are opting out of in-person, critical health services in order to avoid leaving their homes. Telehealth services are an important alternative to ensuring seniors get the health services they need.

We must support senior services like Meals on Wheels. Food insecurity and economic challenges will continue as the nation and our economy recover. Ensuring federal funding continues for support programs like Meals on Wheels is necessary as we aim to improve care for our seniors.

In the meantime, as seniors continue to social distance and prioritize staying socially connected, we need to support broadband services that power the technology our seniors and so many of us are depending on to stay in touch with loved ones. It has been and will continue to be a priority for me to expand access to reliable, fast broadband service to households and businesses across southwest Michigan and the country.

Finally, as there is light at the end of a long tunnel, we are hopeful we will soon have a safe and approved COVID-19 vaccine. Once the vaccine is ready to be distributed, I believe seniors need to be among the first to have access to the vaccine so we can better protect them from the virus. 

This list of priorities is not exhaustive but can serve as a playbook for the 117th Congress as we look to better care for our seniors. This is certainly a challenging time for older Americans. It is our job to do everything we can to give them a voice, fight for their interests, and restore their hope as we work together to better support them in their golden years.

 

Upton represents Michigan’s 6th Congressional District. He is a vice chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and served as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 2011 to 2017.