COVID’s Ageist Reckoning and What You Can Do About It
By Barbara Waxman, MS, MPA, PCC
The COVID-19 crisis has initiated a reckoning in our society by exposing aspects of it that have been unhealthy for far too long. Specifically, I’m referring to long-standing dramatic disparities created by racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism. I believe that part of the reason we are examining and beginning to make course corrections is that the pandemic, in many ways, has given us the time to consider our individual and collective roles in the gamut of ‘isms’. It’s incumbent on each one of us to recognize injustice, to learn about how each one of us can help heal our nation, and then to take action, big or small, to affect positive change.
Dr. Robert Butler, founding director of the National Institute on Aging, coined the term ageism in 1968 when he noted a growing obsession with youth, evidenced by popular sayings like: “Never trust anyone over 30.” The idea of respecting youth over maturity was a new concept in our culture. A couple of hundred years ago, when life expectancy hovered around 40, grey hair and signs of aging were rare and valued. The wisdom imparted from one generation to another not only bonded families but also passed along information deemed as valuable on an individual, familial, community-wide, and cultural basis. This appreciation and reverence for aging and wisdom was the reason for grey wigs worn in courts of law, for example.
Today people can expect to live to around 80, making older adults not only more common but also often portrayed as siphoning valuable resources away from younger generations without having much new information or value to add to the mix. The rapid-fire pace of technological change and the dearth of intergenerational experiences have combined to foster a cultural preference for all things youthful with an entrenched misunderstanding of the realities of the natural aging process and adult development. Misperceptions about the frailty of older adults are rampant and particularly dangerous as they may become a tool for discrimination as COVID-19-related concerns about health care access continue. Age alone is not a valid proxy for assessing one’s risk of developing COVID-19. Yes, advanced age is a risk factor. But it is not the only risk factor. A robust 65-year-old with no underlying health conditions may have a much greater chance of recovery than a 40-year-old with underlying conditions. Neither one is an unusual case.
The heterogeneity of our population makes any single factor a dangerously limiting approach to resource allocation. Yet value judgments based on single factor considerations, including age, sex, race, or disability, are constantly made by health care professionals, policymakers, and organizations alike. Is this older person worthy of access to constrained health care resources during COVID-19? Should this older person’s life be prioritized over a younger person’s? This ageist lens not only puts older adults at risk but also puts younger people at risk by spreading misinformation, suggesting that young people are not vulnerable.
Throughout the pandemic media headlines have highlighted the need to protect “older adults” from themselves, told stories of frustrated millennials whose parents don’t take the crisis seriously, and even shared “boomer remover” memes that showcased the hubris of younger generations purporting a quasi-natural selection process. The age distribution of COVID cases looks more like a bell curve, with only the youngest amongst us having a significantly decreased infection rate. Recognizing ageism when we see it and dealing with it appropriately has never been so important.
According to the World Health Organization, “Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially ‘normalized’ of any prejudice.” Ageism isn’t just based on someone knowing your chronological age. If your hair is gray, for example, you may be the victim of assumptions and unconscious biases. Unexamined, these biases make us complicit in allowing ageism to insinuate itself further and further into our professional and personal lives.
Ageism isn’t solely a form of discrimination that impacts employability or access to constrained resources. It is a mindset we hold against ourselves. We live in a culture that believes anyone in midlife is on a slippery slope towards their demise. Birthday cards telegraph that the best years are behind us. Brands and companies target us with terms like anti-aging. As Amanda Hess wrote in her article, The Ever-Changing Business of Anti-Aging: “The only real solution to aging is, of course, death, but our central mode of dealing with that inevitability is to delay and deny it”. It feels as if our only choices are retreat or submission. Anti-aging is anti-living.
Ageism’s insidious nature has infiltrated every corner of society, our psychology, and lives at the intersection of all other ‘isms’. Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism wrote: “We are engaged in a massive collective experiment to protect the vulnerable…it’s as intersectional as it can get”. Ageism is the one social bias that will impact every single one of us, and each of us has the agency to fight against this bias.
Where do we begin as individuals to address the challenges created by ageism, during the pandemic and beyond? The following are three steps you can take to get started today:
Adjust Your Default Mindset: Ageism is a mindset many of us haven’t realized that we have. Shifting it will not only help others but will also make for your own healthier, happier life. Research has shown that those people who have positive attitudes about aging, live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative attitudes. Embrace aging as an awakening to wisdom, experience, and personal satisfaction.
Educate Yourself About the Realities of Our Longer Lives: The demographic gift of the 21st century has been an increase in our life span. In light of this, expanding your healthspan is something you must become educated about. Healthspan is the period of life that is free from serious disease and health-related limits to your activities of daily living. Explore Stanford University’s Center on Longevity for research, resources, and videos to learn more about the scientific discoveries, technological advances, behavioral practices, and social norms around aging and longevity.
Become an Advocate to End Ageism: It’s clear that aging is misunderstood and devalued in our society and that COVID-19 has brought this topic to the fore. As Gandhi famously said: “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Advocacy takes many forms. It begins when you speak up when you hear ageist comments; when you seek opinions from the elders in your life; when you work towards including mature workers on your team. The Frameworks Institute is a think tank that offers resources to help you communicate about aging (and other social issues) in ways that will affect change.
One of the painful legacies and also one of the gifts of COVID-19 maybe that unvarnished social biases—including ageism–are finally being recognized and addressed. When we re-emerge, let’s do so with a renewed understanding that the aging members of our society have wisdom, strength, and vitality, traits that can benefit all of us–if we honor them.