For every occasion, even a pandemic, there appears to be a hashtag. One used to describe the coronavirus was particularly vile, particularly cruel: #BoomerRemover.
There is, tragically, some truth to it, as COVID-19 has shown itself to be especially deadly among those 65 and over. That age group accounts for nearly 69% of the 385,000-plus Americans who had died of the virus as of mid-January.
But the heartlessness of the hashtag reinforced the fact that ageism is alive and unwell in Western culture, particularly American culture. Not that there has ever been much doubt. Mass media has long propagated the notion that the elderly are frail, burdensome and ultimately expendable. And too many of us, seniors included, are guilty of internalizing and recycling those ideas.
We see it nearly every day – claims that the virus only affects the elderly, the inference being that they are disposable and unimportant: They don’t have much time left anyway. And really, why should they take up resources better used on those younger and healthier – you know, those who have so much to live for?
Against this backdrop, good deeds stand out, whether great or small.
Happily there have been countless examples. There is the laid-off advertising executive who mows seniors’ lawns (as well as those of disabled veterans) across a four-county swath of Northern New Jersey. The Florida nurse who went out of her way to hunt down toilet paper for an elderly couple. The Indiana teen who, while working the cash register at a grocery store, dug into his own pocket to pay an older woman’s bill.
Such acts elevate us all, helping to tamp down the “moral bankruptcy” that has manifested itself, in the view of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He said during an Aug. 31 news conference that he reached that conclusion after hearing people dismiss the elevated death rate among older people as “fine.”
It’s not fine
“No, when the elderly are dying, it’s not fine,” Ghebreyesus said. “We should not be morally dead. Every life, whether it’s young or old, is precious, and we have to do everything to save it.”
True, but Atlantic writer Olga Khazan wrote of “compassion fade” setting in as the crisis worsened, which brings to mind a statement attributed to Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” The quote, probably apocryphal, is tragically ironic, given the millions of deaths for which the long-ago Russian premier was responsible during his reign of terror. But it underscores the point that the larger the toll, the harder it is to muster empathy.
And as Khazan wrote, it is harder still when the deaths are among those who happen to fall into an age group that has long been disregarded and marginalized.
So the question is, don’t we have to be better than this, as people, a nation and a world? Isn’t it incumbent upon us to think, to feel, to act? Don’t we have to band together, now more than ever?
Of course. It is never wise to paint with too broad a brush, never prudent to embrace “isms” of any kind. And that certainly holds true in this case. Paul Nash and Phillip W. Schnarrs, professors at the University of Southern California and University of Texas, respectively, wrote that seniors are far from a homogeneous group, and shouldn’t be viewed through a single prism:
“Older people are not the helpless individuals they are so often portrayed to be. They hold jobs. They pay taxes. They are the backbone of the volunteer sector. This includes the COVID-19 crisis – they are the army of retired nurses and doctors returning to the front lines to support overstretched health services. This is not a population of vulnerable people, sitting around and waiting to die.”
Changing hearts and minds
Still, the challenge of changing hearts and minds is not a small one, given the degree to which ageism is baked into our culture. Too many of us are infatuated with youth. Too many of us fear death. It is why anti-aging products and health club memberships are all the rage; too many of us are terrified of frailty, obsolescence and irrelevance.
Just consider the language, and our casual use of phrases like “crotchety old man” and “little old lady.” Consider the fact that 90% of marketing is geared toward those below the age of 50, despite the ever-increasing buying power of seniors.
Robert Butler, the late physician/gerontologist/psychiatrist who coined the term “ageism” in 1969, thought educating healthcare professionals about the need to regard seniors with the same compassion as other patients was an important step. That was one of the many initiatives Butler pursued as founding director of the National Institute on Aging, the chair of geriatrics at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and Medical School and the founder of the Longevity Center, also based in New York.
Specific to the here and now, the Journal of American Geriatrics Society has urged healthcare organizations to keep seniors’ needs top of mind when it comes to clinical breakthroughs, policy and funding, and that geriatricians and gerontologists be kept in the loop about matters like rationing. In the case of long-term care facilities, Nash and Schnarrs recommend steps such as enhanced visitor screening and cleaning protocols, as well as dedicated visitation rooms, and made clear that the pandemic offers an opportunity for growth and innovation.
Certainly, though, it will be difficult to ferret out ageism, hardwired as it is into our national consciousness. It is nonetheless imperative that the effort be made. And goodness knows, many people are trying, understanding the need to rise above a hateful hashtag. We would all do well to follow along.
Joel Landau is the founder and chairman of The Allure Group, a rapidly expanding provider of skilled nursing and rehabilitation services throughout the New York downstate area.