Remember the value of our older community members

By Christine Stephens, May 2020

I was somewhat alarmed to find myself, as a 70-year-old, suddenly categorised as a member of a particularly vulnerable group. This is a group of people based only on the number of years that they have lived who have been singled out as needing to be extra careful and isolated earlier than others during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, this is for the protection of our health and signals society’s concern and protection of members of the population who are clearly more at risk.

As we age, we are more likely to suffer the underlying health issues which also make people more vulnerable to this virus. Unfortunately, using such a crude indicator of vulnerability as age alone has its downside. Categorising people in this way feeds into prejudice against older people and a deficit view of ageing that is already circulating in our society. Such ageist attitudes depict people in terms of their age alone and obscure the huge diversity that actually exists among older people.

For a start, people continue to develop and change between 70 and 100. Grouping all people over 70 is like treating those from ages 10 to 40 as one homogenous group. In addition, people bring their diverse lifelong backgrounds into older age where physiological, social, and health differences actually widen. Although some are vulnerable, many older people are healthy and can survive disease. Using generalisations, which target a very broad group, can be damaging to that group.

In the case of the current pandemic, we can see how ageism becomes the basis of spurious oppositions, the economy versus the lives of older people, or the future of the young versus the health of the old, that threaten all older people’s position in society.

First, there is a moral issue. Fortunately, our leaders from every political party and public health officials recognise the moral stance against such a position. The health of all people in our society is important and any slide toward eugenic arguments about the dispensability of older people has gained little traction.

Secondly, such arguments fail to recognise that the measures currently undertaken are for the health of all people. Vulnerable people are like the canary in the coal mine, indicating that danger to population health is present, but left to spread, the health of many is threatened, as seen in other countries around the world.

Third, pitting the economy against older people fails to recognise that people are the economy, and joining together to protect everybody now makes us stronger, morally and economically, as a society. Evidence for this comes from the United States in the 1918 flu pandemic. Colin Peacock reported on Mediawatch last Sunday on two US economists and an MIT professor who found that US cities which used the strongest lockdown measures in the flu pandemic of 1918 not only saved more lives, but, livelihoods grew faster after the pandemic was over.

pitting the economy against older people fails to recognise that people are the economy

Another similar argument along these lines, emphasises a false intergenerational divide: Incurring debt now to save lives endangers the economic future of young people. Again, such arguments fail to recognise that societies are about all people, and that working together now to preserve the health of vulnerable people and the livelihoods that are immediately threatened under lockdown circumstances will ensure the strength of our future society.

To further counteract the opinions that threaten to reinforce an intergenerational divide we must recognise the contributions that older people make to society.  Depicting all people over 70 as a burden to younger generations, completely fails to recognise that many older people continue to support their children emotionally, physically, or economically. Many are currently employed, some in essential services. Many other older people are engaged in volunteer services.  A high proportion of older people are engaged in essential care giving, for their elderly parents, their spouses, or their grandchildren.

At present my relatives, both over 70, are caring for their grandchildren, whose parents are both health care workers. Our current research projects include older caregivers who are also in paid employment. We will be back to them soon to see how the pandemic has further complicated their difficult lives. All of this work is often unacknowledged but is worth millions of dollars to the economy.

This pandemic has highlighted one of the most valuable aspects of having people around who have lived for a long time. If we listen carefully or provide more opportunities for older people to speak, we can hear stories of experience and the wisdom derived from that experience. Rather than being terrified by the implications of a major change in the way we live, older people can take a more optimistic view (as New Zealand elders did in the Christchurch earthquakes). They’ve seen this before and, although life is turned upside down, in the end, many aspects of life do not change. Talk of long-lasting doom does not fit with the experiences of my parents who survived the polio epidemic, diphtheria, and World War II, and lived to enjoy a period a great economic growth and social care in New Zealand. It is good for young people to hear these stories in times of heightened anxiety and fear for the future.

About the author

Chris Stephens co-leads the cross- disciplinary Health and Ageing Research Team in the School of Psychology at Massey University (New Zealand) where she is a Professor of Social Science Research. The focus of the team’s activity is a longitudinal study of quality of life in ageing (Health, Work and Retirement study) which has conducted bi-annual surveys of a population sample of older people for 10 years.  The research also includes in-depth qualitative studies on topics such as informal caregiving, the experience of cancer, and housing needs.

Featured Image Credit: “two people sitting on pavement facing on body of water” by Sven Mieke  and “Mobile Phone” by Adrien Delforge on Unsplash

Acknowledgement: This piece originally appeared on Sciblog on 15th April 2020.

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