The Hidden Danger of COVID-19
COVID-19 has a hidden danger which may prove detrimental to our elderly population.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, we were simultaneously experiencing a parallel outbreak: ageism. Ageism is the discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping of people due to their age. This is not a new issue. In our Western societies, it has existed for decades. But the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated this issue, and it may prove to be more dangerous for some people than the virus itself. There are 3 main issues with ageism.
1. Ageism ignores the heterogeneity of this population
Older adults are said to be the most heterogeneous of all age groups, yet health guidelines and restrictions are advising anyone over the age of 70 to stay at home. The age of 70 is arbitrary. Some people are old at 40, some are young at 80. People, and especially older adults, have had myriad experiences to shape them into who they are now.
Yet this entire population is being treated as one homogenous unit, completely disregarding the variance that exists within it. The ageism discourse views older adults as having all the same risks and vulnerabilities across the entire population.
Furthermore, older adult deaths from the virus are usually related to levels of frailty and co-morbidities rather than age. This arbitrary age cutoff should not be the sole criterion for decisions regarding resource allocation and who cannot leave the house. There are stories of people over 100 years old who survive the virus, and reports of those much younger who do not.
2. Ageism dismisses the value of the elderly
In a lot of places there is competition for resources. And when two people are competing for the same hospital bed, if one is over 70 the bed will automatically be given to the other person.
Furthermore, when a young person dies from COVID-19, it usually produces a large story and media response, whereas when an older adult dies, they are represented as merely a statistic.
Ageism disregards the value of older adult lives. While also being patronizing, this ageism discourse implies that older adult lives are not as worthwhile to save; they are nearer the end of their life, having had their time, and are viewed as a burden to society.
3. Ageism perpetuates the gap between young and old
There is significant discourse around “us” and “them” in the world right now. In some countries, people in positions of power have had considerable impact on the ageist discourse: in Israel, the Ministry of Defence stated that the most important action in the fight against the virus is to separate the young from the old, implying that older adults are the problem rather than the virus. Similarly, leaders of many countries emphasized the importance of isolating older adults rather than the whole population.
We need to be increasing intergenerational solidarity right now. Not decreasing it. The virus has widely been considered a disease of the elderly, which has led to young people being resentful towards the older generations.
The dangers of ageism
These discourses of ageism are dangerous because people internalize the stereotypes and biases assigned to them. This leads to a shift in how a person views themselves, and this internalization can have detrimental consequences for physical and mental health.
Older adults may feel devalued and worthless, as well as feeling like they are a burden to society. Negative self-perceptions among older adults can actually increase the occurrence of loneliness and distress, on top of what they are likely already experiencing, as well as increasing emotional reactivity (1). Thus, age may not be as impactful on wellbeing during this time, but rather the ways in which older adults view themselves. On the contrary, older adults with positive views about themselves and aging appear to be more resilient to the virus (1). Consequently, due to the high levels of stress that result from the pandemic, it may be even more imperative than usual that older adults feel self-efficacious in order to maintain health and wellbeing.
Ageism is happening and it is dangerous.
- It fails to recognise the heterogeneity of the older adult population,
- It disregards the value and the autonomy of our older adults,
- And it is decreasing intergenerational solidarity.
Ageism is perpetuated by the discourses in which we engage. We need to change how we talk about older adults. We need to recognise them as unique individuals. Of course it is imperative to protect this population, as it is it protect every population. But there must be a balance between protecting them and disregarding their autonomy. We need to check in on them to make sure they are okay. But we must also value them as equal and autonomous members of our society, who are just as deserving of life as anyone else.
- Losada-Baltar, A., Jiménez-Gonzalo, L., Gallego-Alberto, L., Pedroso-Chaparro, M. D. S., Fernandes-Pires, J., & Márquez-González, M. (2020). “We’re staying at home”. Association of self-perceptions of aging, personal and family resources and loneliness with psychological distress during the lock-down period of COVID-19. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.