In Search of a Place to Cry: The Gray Panthers COVID Memorial

Photograph Source: The National Guard – CC BY 2.0

At last count, Covid-19 has killed 182,000 people in nursing homes—residents and staff alike. That’s nearly one-third of all Covid-19 fatalities in the United States. In some states, it’s particularly bad: in New Hampshire, for instance, nearly seventy percent of Covid deaths have been linked to nursing homes.

At some point in the pandemic, I don’t remember when, exactly, I noticed that the daily bar graph showing the steadily rising deaths had changed. Wherever it was—the New York Times?—it had started as a simple tally of Covid-19 fatalities, but now, the tally was split between the deaths of those in long-term care facilities and the deaths of “regular” civilians. The bar marking the former category was gray, as if meant to represent the people themselves who had perished: they were primarily old, and, if they were in a skilled nursing facility, they likely had physical and/or mental disabilities.

“These are among the most ‘other’ peoples,” Jack Kupferman, the director of the New York City chapter of the activist group the Gray Panthers, told me. “They’re literally behind walls. This is what we never want to be. To be in a long-term care facility, particularly a skilled nursing facility, is not on anyone’s bucket list.” It’s easy, in other words, to look away—actually, it might even feel imperative, because the sight is uncomfortable, painful, shocking, guilt-inducing. To actually regard the agonizing deaths-by-covid of the elderly would be a disruption of business as usual—this country has never treated the old, the differently-abled, the “other” of any kind with dignity, let alone attention.

It’s for this reason that the Gray Panthers, with help from the famous Riverside Church and other organizations, is hosting an online memorial to honor “nursing home lives lost” on May 20, at 5 pm EST. The online event, Kupferman told me, will finally provide a “place to cry.” No, it will not be cheery; that’s not the point. “There are no silver linings here,” Kupferman said; to search for positivity, in our relentless American way, would be an insult to the memories and dignity of those who have been killed by Covid-19, which has taken a needless toll on the already-vulnerable, and, in the cases of the health aides, who are primarily women and people of color, the overworked and underpaid. Testimonials will run from, among others, family members of those who have died of Covid in nursing homes, staff members who have lost friends in their patients and colleagues, and even residents themselves, notably those at Roosevelt Island’s Coler Rehabilitation & Nursing facility, who have agitated throughout the pandemic for their own safety. A few politicians, including New York state assemblyman Ron Kim, who lost his uncle to Covid in a nursing home, will also share thoughts.

Vicki Ellner lost her brother to Covid-19 in a nursing home on Thanksgiving Day of 2020. A longtime advocate for the elderly, Ellner already knew the landscape of senior issues, and the way that, as she joked, “when babies are born, they’re emerging seniors.” The indignities of the elderly, in other words, belong to all of us—as do their basic rights. Ellner, who is working alongside the Gray Panthers, wants to advocate for nursing home transformation: “how do we handle these types of things,” she asked me, “should this ever happen again?”

Kupferman says that an essential part of the equation for change is “literally, money.” “We have an open wound in skilled nursing facilities,” he says. Even “piecemeal acknowledgment” of what has happened this year would include, he says, “financial and employment security” for staff, “with adequate wages and career ladders.” Kupferman puts nursing home-related work at the top of the Gray Panthers’ priorities. It is a moment, like so many others this year, in which, because of the direness of the situation, change feels like it could be shimmering there, just under the surface.

“The squeaky wheel,” remarked Ellman, “gets the oil.” It is time, they hope, to squeak again, loudly, urgently. As a national organization, the Gray Panthers have a fascinating history beginning with the activist Maggie Kuhn, who advocated not for the infantilizing treatment of the elderly, nor for their separation from the rest of American society, but the opposite: respect, inclusion. She saw the Gray Panthers as an intergenerational effort, one focused a reciprocally involved relationship between the elderly and the rest of American society. The past year’s tragedy—a word I hesitate to use, as it feels devoid of rightful blame; “passive murder” might be more fitting—would enrage her, as it should us all. If there were a time, in other words, to begin advocating for the elderly, it would be now.

Jack Kupferman, though, has spent longer “working with older people…than anyone has ever been old”—sixty-three years. He grew up in what was then called a rest home, the Garnerville Home for Adults, which his parents—Jennie and Irwin Kupferman—owned, near the Hudson River, north of New York City. It was a place, Kupferman remembers, where elderly people came to live out the rest of their lives, often with physical or mental differences that proved difficult to handle independently. It was not a chain, not a gigantic corporation. It was just a house. In the summers they would have picnics on the lawn. Some residents would sit in the Adirondack chairs. Someone would take photos. Kupferman remembered one resident, a man named Henry Jacoby, who lived in the home for years. When it became clear that Henry’s time was near, the Kupfermans advocated for him to die in what had become his home, rather than the hospital.

“I remember sitting in the room,” Kupferman remembered. “My father was sitting in the rocking chair…My father was cradling him and rocking him. I was sitting on the bed. And the soft light was coming in through the window, backlighting my father and Henry. And I, how old was I, eleven? Maybe? And then I watched slowly as the life was leaving Henry. And there’s that imperceptible transition. You can’t, you don’t know when it happens. And so then it dawns on you that it’s happened. Truly that is one of the greatest gifts that God can give you, is to be with somebody when they make that transition, in peace.”

The peace part is what has been impossible, in the past year, to find. Covid wreaks agonizing havoc on the body; the isolation it has been paired with has wreaked psychological havoc on everyone watching the death of a loved one. Those of us who have lost someone in this way feel an acute understanding of the cruelty of the virus—not just its physical effects, but also the loneliness in which our loved one died. We have been marked by it. And we have recognized that all too often, particularly in the cases of the elderly, the isolation in which they died was not altogether new to them. But I am reminded of a rallying cry often traced to Maggie Kuhn: “Don’t agonize,” she likely yelled—“Organize!”

Lucy Schiller is an essayist based in Iowa City. She’s at work on a book about the musician Arthur Russell and on a collection of essays.