Hard Lessons Learned and How to Move Forward as COVID-19 Persists

In this Spring 2022 issue of Generations Journal, authors reflect on the pain and the suffering, especially for older adults, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and policy makers’ response. It also covers individual and systemic mistakes, many derived from disparities and inequities, that impacted the United States’ COVID-19 public health crisis. Our Guest Editors, Robin Mockenhaupt and Edna Kane Williams, are profoundly committed to change, and have been working their entire careers to effect it.

Mockenhaupt and Kane Williams’s committed to providing readers a focus on storytelling and systemic impact. Articles provide personal accounts of patients with COVID-19 and the impact on direct caretakers and care workers, long-term care facilities, community-based services, on vaccine rollouts and the political determinants of health.

Mockenhaupt spent 21 years at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest foundation devoted to health and healthcare in the United States. Before that, she worked for 14 years at AARP, mostly in health advocacy and supporting state operations. In January 2021, Mockenhaupt began part-time consulting with foundations and philanthropy on health and health equity.

I’m tired of talking about disparities and inequities and hope this issue fosters real discussion about moving forward.

“My career in public health and population health has focused on lifespan from maternal and child health to healthy aging. The COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate effects on certain individuals, communities, and systems—especially older and BIPOC persons—brought together threads of my interests over many years,” Mockenhaupt said.

Kane Williams is Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for AARP, and, as she said, “hyper-focused on the needs of communities of color as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the disparities that exist and the work that needs to be done.”

Having spent a large part of her career working to mitigate these disparities and inequities, and to position AARP as a key player in finding the short- and long-term solutions, Williams also said, “I am tired of talking about disparities and inequities. I don’t think this issue of Generations Journal will solve the problem, but I hope it sheds additional light on these issues and fosters real discussion about how we might move forward.”

Kane Williams’ interest in health and racial disparities is achingly personal. Kane Williams’s brother died in May 2020 soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began. “I faced the challenge of honoring my brother’s memory with traditional African American funeral practices, while protecting funeral attendees from contracting COVID-19—which we knew little about at the time. It was very difficult to manage my grief.”

Three months later, Kane Williams’s cousin, who she had last seen at her brother’s funeral, died. “Death during the COVID-19 pandemic has been wrenching,” Kane Williams said.

Mockenhaupt looks to the future. She has a 6-year-old granddaughter, who has lived a third of her life during the pandemic and a 21-year-old nephew who is graduating from college this year. He spent months at home taking online courses.

“My motivations for editing this journal,” Mockenhaupt said, “are for the current and future generations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. I question—What long-term impacts might it have on them and their generation?”

We suggest a follow-up issue on COVID in a couple of years, to ‘course correct’ the country’s approach to the health and well-being of midlife and older adults.

Mockenhaupt hopes the stories in this issue of impacts during the beginning years of COVID-19 will open readers’ minds to the effects of COVID-19 on older adults and spur innovations such as policy-fueled health and economic equity responses, more geriatric emergency departments, and increased public health engagements.

Also, she thinks we will be living with COVID-19 for years, and that it will continue to shape our beliefs, behaviors, communities, and institutions for the perceptible future.

“We suggest a follow-up issue on COVID in a couple of years, to ‘course correct’ or make wholesale changes to the country’s approach to the health and well-being of midlife and older adults,” said Mockenhaupt.

“Having said that, the time is now to seize the opportunity to change the broken parts of our systems, not when there are crises. Authors in this issue suggest fixes to policies, systems, funding models, and/or outlook. They highlight the need to value the health and the well-being of midlife and older persons and change funding mechanisms to pay for those priorities.”

Kane Williams shared a similar vision: “While government solutions are key, I hope nongovernment entities—nonprofit organizations, businesses, philanthropists, communities—will coalesce to address healthcare disparities in a substantial way. COVID-19 has shown that we need a colossal, shared effort to solve healthcare inequities.

“Nothing less will do.”