Older adults have received a lot of attention from a medical perspective during the coronavirus pandemic, but we also need to be considering the psychosocial impacts. I study the psychology of aging and in recent years was encouraged that, as a society, we were starting to address the well-documented harmful physical, social, psychological and economic impacts of ageism — discrimination and stereotyping based on age. I fear that progress is rapidly unraveling (or perhaps was not as advanced as I hoped) as I hear the language and see how older adults are being treated during the pandemic.
Due to COVID-19, the public discourse has reverted to one in which older adults are viewed as monolithically weak, frail and unproductive. This ageist and untrue portrayal is damaging and may lead to policy actions that harm the aging population. Older adults, as a group, are incredibly diverse in terms of interests, attitudes and health profiles. Most do not need care — and, indeed, some are caregivers themselves for their aging parents or their grandchildren. Many are still working or are volunteering in their communities. A relevant current example is Dr. Fauci, who at age 79 is daily displaying his medical expertise, stamina and resilience in the face of political pressure. The susceptibility of older adults to COVID-19, and their higher mortality rates, are largely due to underlying health conditions, which are associated with age, but are not due to age per se. A middle-aged person with diabetes, heart disease and a history of smoking may be at greater risk from the coronavirus than a healthy 75-year-old. I fear that putting all older adults in the category of needing special treatment during the pandemic is setting up ageist attitudes and potentially paternalistic social policies. Some, on the face of it, seem beneficial — such as allowing special shopping times for older adults. However, the insidious nature of putting older adults in an “other” category has its risks in terms of fomenting ageist attitudes that all older adults are vulnerable.
Intergenerational contact is a mechanism for reducing ageism and should be promoted for the benefit of young and old alike. However, recent actions may foment hostility between people of different generations rather than facilitating intergenerational solidarity. It is important to avoid pitting generations against each other, as exemplified in the recent ageist trope that “we’re shutting down the economy to save lives of older people.”
One of the most distressing impacts of the pandemic is the obligatory “social distancing” such that families are not able to gather — not only for events like births, deaths, graduations and birthdays, but even for everyday gatherings that give life meaning. This disproportionately impacts quality of life for older adults. As perceived time left to live shrinks, relationships with family and friends grow even more important. A mandated “time apart” from family for many months may be sad for people in their 20s; for those in their 80s it is particularly poignant, as they know their time is limited and they will not get these weeks and months back. Touching base via electronic platforms such as FaceTime and Zoom are better than nothing — but don’t quite capture the experience of being in the physical presence of loved ones. While we may not be able to do anything now to change the terms of social distancing, let’s be prepared to think of safe and creative ways to avoid these damaging moratoriums of contact going forward.
My plea during this pandemic period is that we not revert to ageist assumptions about older adults, which requires that we not fall back on the simple criteria of age for crafting new policies. We should move forward giving people of all ages the care and access to resources they need to live a healthy and psychologically rewarding life.
We truly are all in this together.
Professor Karen Hooker, Ph.D., is the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Chair of Gerontology and Family Sciences in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and is affiliated with OSU's Center for Healthy Aging Research.