The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed the ugly truth about our attitudes to older people

I’m not the first person to note how uncomfortable I am about many of the reassurances surrounding COVID-19. We keep hearing how “the people who’ve died have been over 60, with underlying health conditions” — as if to reassure us that it’s OK.

Is there any attitude that so exposes the moral deficiency, not to mention naivete, of an individualistic worldview? As if everyone under 60 can relax and feel reassured as if they don’t have older grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, neighbours, colleagues, members of their faith community or local political group?

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

This ugly callousness and dismissiveness towards older people was also evident in the Brexit debate recently. Jamelia went on TV to argue that older people shouldn’t be allowed to vote. A Remain voter asked “does a dead person’s vote count for more than my vote?” on BBC Radio 5 Live. I remember hearing a woman on the tube commenting on how “all these older people voted leave when they’re gonna die soon anyway”. I still remember the mix of anger, disbelief and sadness I felt.

Caring about older people

Many people, of course, aren’t as vile or callous about older people. But they can still be dismissive, or implicitly value their lives less. It’s a problem I encountered regularly when working for charities supporting and advocating on issues that predominantly affected older people, including end of life care and dementia. Dementia costs the UK at least twice as much as cancer, yet research for the latter has received about seven times as much investment. Advocating on issues that disproportionately affect older people is always a challenge when people instinctively care much more about Great Ormond Street Hospital or the Teenage Cancer Trust. (Both of which of course do vital work).

The lack of regard for older people isn’t just evident in a lack of investment. It’s in the day to day language about older people too as well as the general stereotypes of them all using walking frames, rambling away to themselves with their outdated attitudes. If there’s one thing that stuck with me after several years working with older people, it’s that older people really don’t deserve or live up to these stereotypes. Their hobbies and opinions are varied and interesting, and they have decades of life experience that can help struggling millennials and Gen Zs trying to navigate the complexities of adult life. They’ve also often cultivated the wisdom to know what is important and what isn’t. But most fundamentally, they want the same things everyone else does: to have meaningful loving relationships of different kinds and to feel a sense of purpose for their life.

What COVID-19 means for older people

That’s why I’m quite concerned about the implications of asking older people to self-isolate for up to four months, as the government seems to be on the cusp of doing. While it may well be necessary (I’m not going to claim to be a public health expert), it will nonetheless have real implications for many people.

Think of how much most of us have dreaded the thought of self-isolation for a week or two, not seeing colleagues, friends or family or enjoying simple pleasures like a walk or a meal out. Plenty of older people have those meaningful relationships and hobbies too, and rely on them just as much (if not more) as reasons to get up in the morning.

At the same time, social isolation disproportionately affects older people. For those people, a trip to the shops or weekly attendance at their place of worship might be a fundamental opportunity for social interaction. Without that, people’s feelings of abandonment and invisibility could be devastating.

Plenty of older people use technology: but it’s still fewer people than in younger generations. So for them, face-to-face contact may matter hugely. Without that, they may not have an option to video call people or keep in regular touch on social media.

We should care so much more about this. It’s always slightly baffled me that people care so little about older people, seemingly overlooking the fact that the majority of us, health and circumstance providing, will be 60, 70, 80, 90, one day. We won’t stop feeling, or having interests, or caring about things.

Older people matter. It’s a fundamental tenet of many of the world’s major religions, not to mention the concept of human rights, that every person is of equal dignity and worth. Don’t calculate their contributions to the economy or society (though if you did their value would be significant) — see them for the inherent worth they have as human beings who matter.

So let’s show today’s older people that we care, during what could be an especially difficult period. Let’s change the way we talk about older people, and take active steps to keep them connected. We can help those who need it to use video technology or social media, send them books, magazines, films or chocolate, and do all we can to show them we haven’t forgotten them.

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Andrew Grey

Working in the not-for-profit sector on healthcare issues, and teaching religion and philosophy part time at City Lit.