Ageism and cost-cutting in the age of coronavirus

Ageism and cost-cutting in the age of coronavirus
© iStock

COVID-19 has delivered a one-two punch to state budgets — and we’re still in the early rounds of the fight to contain this deadly pandemic. Steeply declining tax revenues combined with sharply rising expenses have turned budget surpluses into record deficits and placed critical government programs squarely in the crosshairs for cuts or elimination. 

Sadly, even health and social services for seniors, who account for 8 out of 10 deaths and the highest rate of hospitalization from COVID-19, are not immune from the chopping block — for reasons that go well beyond dollars and cents. As our country wrestles with an unprecedented and historic public health crisis, seniors find themselves in forced isolation and on the defense not only against the virus but against new and virulent strains of ageism that infect public policy and the public discourse. It also pits one segment of society against another for some perceived political or economic gain or simply out of ignorance or lack of understanding. 

Back in March, when Republican Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that seniors should be willing to risk their lives for the sake of the economy, he was pushing a false choice while sounding the ageist trope that older people have outlived their social and economic productivity. This kind of rhetoric from a top official creates a toxic political climate where budget decisions are driven by bias and cold calculation rather than need and compassion.

ADVERTISEMENT

The COVID-19 pandemic calls for shared sacrifice. But by any measure, seniors have already given more than their fair share. More than 100,000 have already paid with their lives. Now, many governors and state legislators facing balanced budget requirements are turning to older adults to foot the bill. Haven’t they paid enough?

My senior-friendly state of California — where we’re creating the state’s first Master Plan for Aging to address the needs of older adults better — was recently poised to make deep cuts to critical programs for seniors in response to a COVID-generated budget deficit of $54 billion.

Only after a chorus of fierce opposition from aging advocates, community leaders, state legislators, and members of the governor’s Master Plan for Aging Advisory Committee were cuts averted to programs for nutrition, caregiving, health insurance, long-term care, independent living and more. Advocates for seniors made the case that the cuts were not only excessive but would end up costing the state more in the long-run and would be counterproductive to its efforts to combat COVID-19. 

Seniors dodged a bullet in California, for now. But similar budget battles will continue to unfold in statehouses across the country, and vulnerable seniors will likely get less than they earned and certainly less than they deserve from dwindling state coffers without vigilance, united opposition, and pushback.

In the state of Washington, legislators may go into special session to address a forecasted $8.8 billion budget shortfall by 2023. A coalition of long-term care advocates has already been formed to oppose potential cuts of up to $220 million to programs and services for seniors and people with disabilities. 

ADVERTISEMENT

California and Washington are bellwether states that signal storm clouds ahead in statehouses across America. But rather than viewing it as just another expenditure, legislators must think of successful aging as an investment. When we cut back senior services for short-term savings, we simply incur the higher long-term costs associated with bad health outcomes, increased hospitalizations, and reduced quality of life. 

We need to recognize that our budgets reflect our values. Excessive cuts to programs that support our aging population in a time of crisis is a morally bankrupt solution for budget shortfalls. Abandoning our parents, grandparents, and vulnerable aging neighbors in their hour of need is systemic ageism writ large and bold. And it’s unacceptable.

For better or worse, this pandemic is a measure of our social values. This can be a time of transformation or time of retreat into old prejudices and self-interest. Years from now, I hope we can tell the next generation that we stood up for seniors when they needed us most. Perhaps they’ll even return the favor. 

Shelley Lyford is president and CEO of West Health, Gary and Mary West Foundation, and the West Health Institute, nonprofit and nonpartisan organizations dedicated to lowering healthcare costs to enable seniors to age successfully. She also serves on the California Commission on Aging and California’s Master Plan for Aging Stakeholder Advisory Committee.