In the label ‘adult failure to thrive,’ medicine reveals its own failures

“When an older adult is called ‘failure to thrive,’ we see a lot of ageism come in, and we see the health care system start to ignore their problems.”

The death certificate made everything worse. Seth Fischer was already angry: a physical feeling, an overwhelming internal buzz. He would go for runs, only to find himself passing the white bulk of mobile morgues, refrigeration whirring — and his mind would end up back on his dad, in respiratory distress, dying of Covid or Alzheimer’s, he’d never know which. He’d requested a post-mortem coronavirus test, and had been told there weren’t enough. I don’t want to be offensive, someone from the health department had said, but he’s already dead, what good’s it going to do?

The death certificate conveyed the same sentiment, a kind of official shrug. Fischer is an essayist. He was sitting in his Los Angeles apartment, trying to put his loss into words when the document arrived from his stepmom. It was May 2020, a month after his father’s burial. There, among the contributing causes of death, was “adult failure to thrive.”

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