I recently read an article about a series of deaths involving older adults. With the exception of one, all the deceased were women mostly in their 80s and 90s, widowed, financially well off and living independently in upscale senior living complexes. All owned expensive jewelry, which disappeared at the time of death. Nearly two dozen women living in the Dallas area — eight in one facility — died within a period of two years.
The deaths appeared suspicious, given their frequency and the similarities in how their safes and jewelry boxes were emptied and their valuable jewelry stolen: even wedding rings were removed from the victims’ fingers. Yet facility staffs, police, and medical examiners wrote off the deaths as “by natural causes.”
Family members were told their loved one died in her sleep, must have hit her head, or fallen. Missing wedding rings were most likely just misplaced. When one survivor told police how she was attacked by a guy posing as a maintenance man, her family was told that “she probably hit her head and became confused.”
Long story short, the women were suffocated by a serial killer who stalked his victims and was able to continue killing because the deaths were not considered suspicious.
Because the individuals and systems depended upon to provide the protection and security that could have saved these women were misled by a stereotype — that older people are senile, delusional, in ill health, and out of touch. After a certain age, death happens. Would the deaths have been approached differently if the women had been in their 30s and 40s?
The disregard with which these women’s deaths was treated, the blanket acceptance of their deaths as nothing unexpected, despite so many of them living actively and independently, reminds me of a similar attitude regarding older victims of COVID-19.
Throughout the pandemic it has been widely accepted that younger people are less likely to have serious side effects from the virus and older adults are more likely to die. Deaths of the latter were often blamed on underlying conditions, especially diabetes, heart or respiratory conditions, and autoimmune disorders.
As in the case of the murdered widows, the deaths of many older victims of COVID were swept under the rug because of their age and health complications. COVID was not the culprit. Like the Dallas murders, these deaths were not seen as suspicious, even though logic should have shown otherwise. Were it not for the viral infection, many older adults would be alive today, in spite of the “underlying health issues” and “old age” blamed for their deaths.
Several months ago, a local widow shared her grief over losing her husband to COVID, just weeks before the vaccine became available. Although he was in his 70s and had suffered a stroke years before, he still had good quality of life. Death was not on the radar, until the day the woman who provided their home care infected both husband and wife with COVID. People who blamed the husband’s death on “being up there in years” and “in poor health” rather than COVID added to the widow’s grief.
How quickly his life was dismissed through the stereotype of being “an old person,” especially by people who denied the existence of COVID. His widow said he didn’t want to die, nor did he expect to die at that time. She made it her personal campaign to inform “the stranger on the street” of the role masking and taking the COVID vaccine has in preventing the spread of COVID, and its potentially fatal consequences, especially for the more vulnerable.
We often see cartoons or hear jokes depicting older adults as forgetful, oblivious to their surroundings, having hearing or visual impairments, lacking control of bodily functions, or otherwise emotionally, mentally, or physically fragile.
Several years ago, a poster designed to convince teens not to drink and drive read, “Think of your best friend. Think of your best friend dead.” What if we applied similar messaging to COVID? How many older people would be alive today if family members, friends and caregivers had considered the health of their older loved ones and taken precautions to limit COVID’s spread? How many of those older adults who hadn’t survived were said to have died from an underlying condition or a body that “just gave out,” although the actual cause of death was COVID?
It is time we realize that when COVID kills older adults who have underlying health conditions or immune deficiencies, their deaths are not from “natural causes.”
Note: Underreported, however, is data showing that among all age groups, including among the oldest Americans, people are dying at a much higher rate since the pandemic began than what would have been expected from usual diseases and other causes under “normal conditions.” This is called “excess mortality.”
Chris Smith of Muncy was a prevention education/highway safety specialist for over 35 years and is a member of Let’s End COVID!