Last week, I found out up close and personal how hard ordinary life can be when you are old and infirm.
The New York City Department of Health held a free flu shot clinic for one morning at a neighborhood church. I arrived at the starting hour, waited in line to fill out a couple of forms, got my assigned number and then took a seat among the 50 or so early attendees in a large basement auditorium.
An hour passed and the public health nurses who would administer the shots had still not arrived. The auditorium was filling up. It was obvious from the start that I – at age 64 – was the youngest person there. Others were in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and about three-quarters of them needed help to walk – with canes, walkers with and without wheels, or with accompanying caregivers.
I could feel their pain with every halting or shuffling step they took. Nevertheless, each waited uncomplainingly to fill out their forms and then slowly made their way to an empty chair – farther and farther in the back of the auditorium as more people arrived.
Meanwhile, the dozen or so health department workers sat at tables in the front – unmoving and apparently unmoved at the difficulty the majority of people were having as they tried to navigate through the labyrinth of scattered tables and chairs.
When the nurses at last arrived and were set up – 90 minutes late – the health department workers began yelling numbers to the crowd now numbering about 300. “One. Where’s number one? No number one? Then number 2. No number 2? Okay, number three…”
A couple of very old people slowly, painfully made their way to the front of the auditorium where I was standing to one side. By the time numbers one and two arrived, the healthcare worker was already calling numbers eight and nine. “I called your number,” she said to one of them. “Where were you?” The old woman looked confused and the healthcare worker pointed her toward another table where there was more paperwork to be done.
As numbers were called, people got backed up at the paperwork table where they had to wait, leaning on their canes and walkers, uncertain they were in the right place. When the additional forms were finished, they were sent across the auditorium to a “holding pen” (without enough chairs) until it was their turn for the shot, when they had to walk, again, across half the auditorium to get to the nurses' stations.
And so it went with no consideration for the difficulty these people had in walking, nor for the fact that many couldn’t hear very well. In addition, no explanation had been given of the routine that would be followed and the tables of six and eight very old people were a continuing murmur of questions, confusion and discussions on whether someone’s number had been called or not, and which table they should go to at the front of the auditorium.
It is an excellent use of city tax dollars to make flu shots available to the old and very young for free, but it is unconscionable that they would make no accommodation for the age of the people attending. How hard could it be?
If I were arranging this program, I’d have the workers give each person a table number as they came in the door and accompany them to a seat at that numbered table where I would hand them their paperwork. Then, I’d have the nurses, using carts to carry their equipment and supplies, do the walking from table to table to administer the vaccines.
There is no doubt that by the time most of these people got home (after climbing two sets of stairs from the basement to the street) that they were done in for the day. It must have been exhausting for them. And those stairs! I counted 58 on my way out and wonder still how those old men and women, with their walkers and canes, got up them. It is unlikely that God would have minded if the clinic had been held in the church proper at street level.
What struck me hard was how uncomplaining and complacent the attendees were about the poor planning and execution of the program even though it cost them a great deal in pain and energy. Could it be that they, with decades of dealing with such bureaucracies as Medicare and Social Security, were conditioned to long waits and lack of consideration for their difficulties?
As the number of aged people increases rapidly in the coming years, the routines of bureaucracies cry out to be adjusted to suit the needs of the people being served.