Forcing The Sick And Elderly To Die Alone Is Crueler Than COVID-19

Keeping people from their suffering loved ones does not safeguard them. It merely subjects them to a different kind of suffering — one for which there might be no recovery.

One year ago today, my father died following a 10-year battle with cancer. Our family’s final weeks with him likely mirrored those of many other families. With a new wave of COVID-19 lockdowns beginning, however, I feel compelled to share our story because that journey convinces me that we, as a nation, are subjecting the dying to physical and psychological torture in the name of fighting a pandemic.

Caring for Family

I’m not sure when my father was first diagnosed with cancer because he didn’t tell anyone. He didn’t need to at the time because his cancer, called myelofibrosis, is a slow-progressing kind that can go without symptoms for years. Likely caused by his 30-some years spent in a garage teaching young adults auto mechanics at a technical college, this rare blood cancer finally advanced enough about five years ago to force my parents to move to a senior facility a mile from my older brother’s home.

Until about three months before my father’s death, my parents lived there self-sufficiently. My father kept his cancer at bay with oral chemotherapy while he cared full time for my mother, who has dementia. After my father received a second diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer, however, my brother convinced them to move in with his family. Even then, my father maintained he was going to survive my mom by one day so he could care for her.

About this time, I began traveling back and forth every weekend to spend time with my parents, to help with the move, and to give my brother a respite. My parents were barely settled with my brother’s family when my dad couldn’t eat without agonizing pain. He was hospitalized with a severe thrush infection of the esophagus, the oral chemotherapy ceased, and he began needing more frequent blood transfusions.

For two weeks, it seemed possible he might recover. If he could overcome the thrush infection, he could begin his chemotherapy again. During those weeks, my brother and I cared for my father in the hospital, spoon-feeding him the soft hospital foods, holding his glass to his mouth, placing the straw between his dried lips, helping him to the bathroom when he could walk or changing and cleaning him when he couldn’t, and wetting his lips and mouth with a water-soaked sponge as he slept. When he struggled to breathe — he had asthma as well — we were there to help with his inhaler, to call respiratory therapy, or just to hold his hand and speak words or prayers of comfort.

More importantly, we were there when he realized he couldn’t fight anymore and had things he needed to say. After he told me he was sorry for those times he failed as a father, he saw my loving eyes that held no reproach, and he felt my kiss and knew my love.