Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi, Searchlight NM - Pandemic's toll on older members of the Navajo Nation

Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi, Searchlight NM
Pandemic's toll on older members of the Navajo Nation


Few commandments are more universally accepted across the planet – honor your elders, and take responsibility for their care.  Accepted with a passive nod – “I love my grandma, and I’m sure she’s safe and happy in her nursing home.”

The “honor” commanded for old people has been eroded by generations of sitcom depictions of foolish grannies, part of a culture that exaggerates – to monetize – generational change.  Then, there’s the movement, the relocation, that is now so much a part of modern life, that has so many people working and living far from their parents and grandparents. The distances between generations have changed the definition of “responsibility” to care for the elderly. Nowadays, that’s become a job for “professionals” at nursing homes.

Problem solved.  Or at least, like Old Dad, tucked safely away.

Of all the lines of poetry I read as an English major, one that has stuck with me is by Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, referring here to the Civil War.  “What like a bullet can undeceive?”

Well, across the world, the coronavirus catastrophe has put a bullet in the belief that we take good care of our old people.

People in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities make up eight percent of America’s COVID-19 caseload, itself more than their share of the general population. But they have been dying at an alarming rate. According to a New York Times investigation, about 40 percent of Americans killed by COVID-19 got sick in a care facility, which is about average for 16 so-called “modern” countries.

But here’s a real eye-opener.  By far the highest rates for eldercare facility deaths have been reported by countries whose healthcare systems have the best international reputations and, usually, the highest national self-regard.  Canada – more than 80 percent of Coronavirus deaths began in homes for the elderly, Sweden, over 70 percent, Spain 66, Israel 58, Norway 57, Ireland 56.

Responsible care for the elderly? What like a pandemic can undeceive?

But, y’know, you can’t really be surprised by institutional failure and generational disconnection in the modern world.  Tribal worlds, especially those rich in pre-modern traditions, are supposed to be different. Isn’t honoring elders and the codes and traditions they represent, and pulling together along lines of family, clan and tribe what membership in the Navajo Nation is supposed to be all about?

The pandemic has put those concepts to as harsh a test as it has our over-confident assumptions have how well America treats old people.



Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi is a freelance journalist and a member of the Navajo Nation. Her work appears in the Navajo Times, The New York Times and many other publications. She is also a doctoral student and writing instructor at the University of New Mexico.



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