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Old Lives Matter

Do elders need defense against the attacks of the young?

I was walking my dog. On the sidewalk coming toward me was a young maskless stranger.

“You need a mask,” I said as were passing each other. “You are not protecting me.”

He turned to face me, angry.

“If it bothers you, stay in your apartment.”

That released a torrent of emotions. He was gone before I could begin to express them. But I felt diminished; I need to restore myself.

Last month I saw thousands of people march by my window shouting "Black Lives Matter!" Mostly young, walking fast, I wanted to join them but I knew that was unwise. I am 78, which makes me “high risk." Instead I wrote to another grandmother who wrote on Facebook that "all lives matter.” I told her that phrase was demeaning and dismissive. The point of Black Lives Matter is that some lives, especially Black ones, have been devalued.

But what about old lives? That maskless stranger, the phrase "OK Boomer," Glenn Beck on the radio suggesting that old people might need to die “to save the country”: all imply that old lives matter less than young ones. A generation war is brewing. The young want to return to normal life. What stops them? Deaths. Whose deaths? Old people.

Elizabeth Williamson and her team studied 17 million people in England, all registered for national health care. As she reported July 8 in Nature, COVID deaths start rising at age 40, continue rising in the 50s and 60s, and take off in the 70s. By age 80, rates are 20 times higher than the 50s.

 Tobias Rehbein/Pexels
And United States, 135,000 and rising. How many over age 80?
Source: Tobias Rehbein/Pexels

Age disparities are not as stark in the United States, because our testing and tallying are not as good. Dr. Weinberger reported on July 1, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that 780,997 people died in the United States from March 1 to May 31, 2020. That is 122,300 more than was expected for those three months. Some (95,235) were attributed to the coronavirus, and some (27,065) were “excess,” more than average, but not listed as COVID deaths.

How to explain that? Three reasons. First, more older people than usual avoided hospitals that might have saved them, and they died at home untested. Second, some hospital deaths are not counted as COVID. For instance, if the heart suddenly stops in a patient who tested positive, death might be listed as cardiovascular. And third, political leaders advocate lower test rates, protecting themselves but also protecting old people from young rage.

That maskless stranger is not the only one who recognizes that my peers and I are keeping the young from bars and restaurants, from movie theaters and basketball games, from college graduations and the big weddings. The media discounts old deaths. Headlines focus on young deaths, or on aggregate deaths, or on super-spreader occasions, like the dozens who caught the virus at a funeral (Albany, Georgia), or at a birthday party (Carrollton, Texas), or at a choir rehearsal (Skagit County, Washington). Most of those who tested positive at such occasions were young; that makes it news. Older people are mentioned at super spreader events only if they die. That was the case for Grandpa Frank at that Texas party. His wife of 67 years also tested positive; she is not dead, at least not yet.

Logically, I could quietly avoid a maskless stranger, just as a Black person might ignore a Confederate statue. I could walk my dog before dawn when the city is deserted. But decades of psychological research find that social prejudice is insidious. It lodges in the brain and spreads infection, with self-doubt becoming a stereotype threat, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To free my brain and save my life, I need to fight back.

My counter attack is double-barreled: with hard science and soft science, with population data and social science research.

First the data. The average life expectancy in the United States is about 80, so some people think that everyone who dies at that age is ready to die anyway. But that average is an arithmetic mean. The numerator is the age at death of everyone, including the babies and teenagers. Actuarial charts show that, if someone is alive at age 80, they live, on average, another decade.

That means that if someone dies of COVID at age 80, they have lost 10 years. Indeed, since 90 is the average, half of them were destined to live longer, some to 100.

Those are the hard numbers. I need to go deeper, to convince myself that another decade or two of my life matters. I need to summon forth the full artillery of research on grandparents.

First the past. As Kristen Hawkes and hundreds of others have proven with the “grandmother hypothesis,” before modern times, millions of babies and young children survived because their grandmothers fed them, kept them from danger, gave them potions and herbs to make them well.

Now the present. Countless studies have found that grandparents babysit, teach skills (baking, knitting, fishing, fixing), help with homework, reduce drug addiction and despair, support education, employment, and independence. Massive, longitudinal, multi-national studies (SHARE, HRS, AARP) plus hundreds of small studies find that older people contribute more than they consume. This is true emotionally, practically, and financially. Despite the myth that the middle generation is burdened by the old, the opposite is more likely. Think about all your relatives over age 70. As accountants know, more money flows down the generations than up.

And the future. Not every elder is a blessing to younger generations, and many other family members are vital. But like most of my peers, I plan to support my children and grandchildren for decades. I enjoy their touch, as this grandmother does.

 Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Did she wash her hands?
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

I hope I do not die before an effective vaccine.

I am not alone. Families and societies would suffer in many ways if all the old people died. I was right to tell that young man to wear a mask. I forgive him for his ignorance and anger: maybe his own grandparents died too young.