Covid19 and the hazards of internalised ageism
In recent weeks many commentators have highlighted the growth in ageist tropes and negative stereotypes that have proliferated as a result of the pandemic. The extremist comments about a ‘cull’ of older people are so vile as to not warrant any analysis – and are thankfully very rare. However the majority of mainstream comments, although mainly benevolent, can unwittingly cause significant harm to older people. How?
Ageism is an odd thing. Unlike the discrimination faced by many other groups, the stereotyping of older people can actually appear kind and well meaning – sometimes referred to as ‘benevolent ageism’. Society’s response to older people during the pandemic has largely derived from this mindset – from a concern and a wish to protect. Unfortunately the kindness often originates from stereotypes about people over a certain age (70?) being ‘vulnerable’, ‘frail’, and in need of ‘protection’. This response lumps older people into a homogenous group who are ‘deserving’ of special attention because they cannot manage on their own, implying that they lack the required agency to look after themselves like any other adult. These attitudes were well encapsulated in the title of the recent Centre for Ageing Better report on ageism – “Doddery but Dear” – i.e. frail but deserving. The impact of these attitudes are further ‘weaponised’ by the widespread and increasing use of the term “the Elderly”. This makes older people ‘other’ from the rest of us and therefore prone to discriminatory attitudes.
You might well ask – ‘So what? Older people are getting lots of attention and resources devoted to them’. The problem arises from the impact that such attitudes and messages can have on how older people view themselves. The relentless messaging about shielding ‘Over 70’s and those with underlying health conditions’ – can make those of us at or near this chronological age, begin to inhabit an identity which is more ‘frail and vulnerable’ than we might previously have identified with. We can begin to see ourselves as being less able and at greater risk of severe ill health. In some people’s mind the conflation of ‘the Elderly’ being ‘over 70’ with ‘underlying health conditions’ can become a core identity which can crowd out or replace previous feelings of agency and independence. Combined with the statistics that over 80% of the people who have died from Covid19 have been over 70 – many older people can end up with a sense of imminent and inevitable ill health and possibly death.
Again some people may say ‘So what? It is not a big deal’. But it is a big deal. The attitudes that we have towards ageing have a number of profound impacts on the health and wellbeing of people in later life with some research(1) indicating that negative attitudes towards ageing shorten life by an average of 7.5years compared to those with more positive attitudes!
What is new about the current pandemic is the way in which older people, ‘the Elderly’, ‘underlying health conditions’ and death dominate the airwaves. It is almost impossible to get away from the stark connections between age, ill health and death – the terms are almost becoming synonymous. This is a dangerous trend as it re-invigorates the myth that ‘to be old is to be ill’; an attitude which often results in people in later life assuming that any illness they face is ‘just because of old age’. This is very worrying because research has shown that when older people attribute their illness to ‘old age’ they experience more frequent health symptoms, higher incidence of chronic illnesses such as heart disease(2), and double the risk of mortality(3)!
The toxicity of the virus is bad enough; we must not add to that by fanning the flames of negative stereotyping to the detriment of a large and important section of society. We need to de-couple the evidence based clinical risks from blanket stereotypes of people over a certain age. Vulnerability to Covid19 has much more to do with health and fitness than a particular chronological age.
- Levy BR, Slade MD, Kunkel SR, Kasl SV. Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002;83(2):261‐270. doi:10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.521
- Williamson JD, Fried LP. Characterization of older adults who attribute functional decrements to “old age”. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1996;44(12):1429‐1434. doi:10.1111/j.1532-5415.1996.tb04066.x
- Tara L. Stewart, Judith G. Chipperfield, Raymond P. Perry & Bernard Weiner (2012) Attributing illness to ‘old age:’ Consequences of a self-directed stereotype for health and mortality, Psychology & Health, 27:8, 881-897, DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2011.630735