Holidays are about spending time with the people most precious to us. Unfortunately, in the middle of a pandemic, one of the most important ways to show that we care is by staying apart.
Perhaps nobody is feeling this loss more acutely than older Americans.
Seniors – especially seniors of color – are at highest risk of severe illness or death due to COVID-19. About 8 out of 10 deaths in the United States have been people over age 65.
Long-term care facilities have been hit especially hard. Out of nearly 270,000 deaths in the United States, around 100,000 of those lost have been long-term care residents or staff members.
Many facilities have closed their doors to visitors and ended group activities to prevent coronavirus from spreading. These lockdowns help protect people’s physical health, but they can take a mental toll. One in four older adults has reported that they’ve suffered from anxiety or depression during the pandemic.
My own mom is 94, and she lives in a senior living community in Michigan. During last spring’s lockdown, she asked me if this was what the rest of her life would look like. I didn’t know how to respond.
As we’re heading into a new year and new Congress, it’s important to keep the specific needs of older Americans in mind.
The most important thing we can do for seniors – and everyone else – is to finally get this pandemic under control. The incoming Biden administration is bringing together a team of public health experts to do just that. It will ramp up testing and contact tracing, use the Defense Production Act to ensure that health care providers and frontline workers have enough personal protective equipment, provide clear and consistent guidance to families and communities, and ensure that vaccines are safe, effective and equitably distributed as soon as possible.
In the meantime, far too many Americans have lost their jobs – and with it their employer-provided health care. This includes many people over age 50, who often struggle to find affordable health insurance options that meet their needs.
We can help make sure this population has health coverage by passing my Medicare at 50 Act. It would give people the option to buy into Medicare early. This would lower their costs, fortify the existing Medicare program and strengthen the health insurance marketplace by including a younger and healthier population.
As ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I’m also laser-focused on food security. Our neighbors are going hungry – we’ve all seen the photos of cars lining up for hours at food banks, which are struggling to meet demand.
One of the most important steps we can take right now is to boost food assistance. Increasing SNAP benefits by at least 15% would provide an additional $25 per month per person as our country faces a true hunger crisis.
In addition to feeding hungry seniors and families, every $1 of SNAP benefits returns about $1.70 to the economy. And every additional billion dollars in SNAP supports nearly 14,000 jobs.
Meanwhile, we need to make sure that our older family members and friends remain connected while staying safely apart. Simply giving them a call, sending a holiday card that includes a fun memory, or even dropping off some homemade treats can make a big difference for people who are missing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I know it makes a big difference for my mom.
There’s no doubt that this holiday season is going to be difficult for many of us. But I truly believe that there are steps we can all take that will save lives, strengthen our communities and protect the most vulnerable. This year, the best present we can give each other is the gift of living to enjoy more holidays.
Stabenow is the senior senator from Michigan.