In a post–COVID-19 society, what must we do to reduce old-age vulnerability to illness and death? The answer may surprise you.
The past two years have been a radically demanding time for us all. We’ve been wearing masks, socially distancing, getting vaccinated, and adjusting to constantly evolving guidelines—making these changes in our behavior in the hope of emerging from this dangerous period and reentering “normal” life.
But how normal will it be, really? Or rather, how normal should it be? Among the many lessons the pandemic is teaching us, one big one is that we must rethink how we view—and treat—the older adults in our lives.
People over age 65 are most susceptible to contracting COVID-19. While that age group composes only 16% of the U.S. population, it has suffered 80% of all COVID deaths, 40% of which have occurred among long-term care residents.
The fact that older adults are more vulnerable to the effects of the virus is to be expected, given the natural process of aging and the biological changes our bodies undergo as we age. Our arteries begin to harden, we lose brain volume, muscle mass, and bone density. In addition, we’re more likely to have one or more chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, and dementia. And regarding COVID, our immune systems become less responsive to outside threats. Clearly, we’re more biologically vulnerable.
WE’RE ALL VULNERABLE
But let’s rethink the concept of vulnerability. Aren’t all people biologically vulnerable in different ways at different stages of life? Surely babies and young children are. But so are teenagers, whose underdeveloped cerebral cortex can make them prone to mood swings, poor judgment, and potentially dangerous impulsive behavior. Young and middle-aged adults are vulnerable, too, to physical and mental illnesses caused by the stresses of sleep deprivation, workplace injury, infertility, and alcohol and drug abuse.
The problem with our culture’s perception of age is that while we know there are many positive traits to being a child or an adult, we mistakenly believe that physical deterioration and mental decline are inevitable and are the only conditions elders experience, and so we conclude that there’s no upside to aging.
But we’re very wrong. Through diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management, it’s more than possible to maintain relatively healthy bodies in our later years. Plus, there are many psychological assets to growing older. If we keep our brains challenged and engaged with the world, we can develop new skills, increase our emotional stability, problem solve more efficiently, grow our social networks, and expand our wisdom. We can continue to contribute to society as mentors, leaders, innovators, experts in our fields, and keepers of the flame.
THE REAL PROBLEM: AGEISM
There’s only one thing that holds us back and keeps us vulnerable—and it’s not our age. It’s how our culture insists on rejecting aging. We demand that older adults maintain the exact same capacities, desires, and values as people “in their prime.” And so anti-aging messages abound in the form of ads for Botox, wrinkle reducing creams, and hair dyes. Old-age jokes fill late-night show monologues that wouldn’t otherwise contain racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic ones. Older adults are far more likely to experience hiring, training, and retention discrimination in the workplace. As a society, we fear and dread becoming old and do whatever we can to distance ourselves from people in their later years, which can lead us to marginalize and neglect them.
Consider how older adults have been treated during the pandemic. Early on, many nursing homes that were struggling to keep infection rates down weren’t provided with enough effective personal protective equipment (PPE). Given the shortages, some media and politicians even suggested that older adults sacrifice themselves so that younger people could survive.
And recently, hospitals flooded with unvaccinated patients have been forced to adopt “crisis standards of care” that include age as an independent criterion for deciding how likely a person will survive, and providing the likeliest ones with necessary treatment.
THE ANSWER: IMPROVE SOCIETY
As we envision the new normal for a post–COVID-19 world, let’s ask ourselves this: What must we do to reduce old-age vulnerability to illness and death?
Taking good care of our bodies and minds is only a fraction of the solution. The main solution to ageing well is found in the determining social factors of race, ethnicity, gender, geography, education, income, and access to adequate housing, health care, transportation, and other services. And most of these are often beyond a person’s individual control.
For example, in 2021, women on average earn 82 cents for every dollar a man makes and are more likely than men to be caregivers for family members. As a result, their lifetime Social Security earnings are less, which can affect how well—or not—they age. People living in rural areas, or making a minimum wage, or having a disability may lack access to reliable transportation, healthy foods, and greater job opportunities. And all of these challenges are compounded for people of color.
So much of what older adults experience throughout this pandemic, and throughout life in general, could be prevented in the future by truly understanding how much of the quality of later life is determined by these social, non-individual, non-biological effects.
When it comes to older adult vulnerability, it’s up to all of us to eliminate the widespread ageism that promotes it. We can 1) Educate ourselves about the benefits, as well as the challenges, of living many years; 2) Call out age prejudice and discrimination whenever and wherever we encounter them; and 3) Become role models of empowered aging, whatever stage of life we inhabit.
Hopefully, as we responsibly recover from this time of COVID, we’ll also stop fearing and dreading getting older. The only new normal we should strive to create is one that fully embraces, honors, and supports everyone, regardless of age. Systemic ageism should have no place in it.
That’s a pandemic worth ending, too.
Jeanette Leardi is a Portland-based social gerontologist, writer, editor, and community educator who has a passion for older adult empowerment. She gives popular presentations and workshops in journaling, memoir writing, ethical will creation, brain fitness, creativity, ageism, intergenerational communication, and caregiver support to people of all ages. Learn more about her work at jeanetteleardi.com.