Suddenly Older in the Age of COVID-19

How did we get pigeonholed into being "elderly?"

Posted May 01, 2020

Has the pandemic changed the way you think of your age? If so, what forces are at work making you feel — perhaps — years older than you were just a few months ago?

When posing this question on social media, friends and writing associates often answered with light, funny responses, such as, “I just wish the corner cafe wouldn't advertise it as an ‘expendable persons discount.’” Others, like me, are in disbelief anyone would look at us and call us that word they know we have not yet accepted. Says another friend, “Every time they say ‘elderly’ and then state that it refers to anyone over 65, I cringe. No, I do not feel elderly. I still think like a 25-year old.” My aesthetician, close in age to me, says, “About 65% of my clients plus myself are over 65. Even if I'm ever allowed to go back to work, families of ‘elders’ may not want them to return.”

Scientific American’s Anthony Ong says, “As fears of COVID-19 spread, so too have ageist messages suggesting that the coronavirus is a disease of the old, with internet memes referring to the virus as a ‘boomer remover.’”  And CityLab’s Sarah Holder starts her piece on the COVID ageism, saying, “In the early days of the U.S.’s coronavirus response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised everyone to steer clear of crowds and wash their hands more, urging ‘older adults’ especially to stock up on food and medicine in case things got worse.” She goes on to say that because the news from China was that the virus hit people over 65 as well as those with underlying health conditions, the first wave of public health admonitions were to protect the “vulnerable elderly.” What we were not told is that many, many of the older Chinese patients who died had been heavy smokers. These are the details we are kept from knowing -- what ARE all these underlying conditions so that those of us in this age range can become more proactive in taking preventative steps on our own? In fact, many of the younger deaths were in those who vaped, having already compromised their health. I am sure that someday these statistics might be forthcoming, as they would be an important reference piece  for us.

I guess the first thing to start with after having spent a few months at home is to ask how differently you live your life now than you did before this. In my household, my husband has always been the “hunter-gatherer.” He knows I hate grocery shopping and I never accompanied him to the grocery store before, so why now? As for the remodel we had started on our home that began long before this all hit, we simply switched up from working on the inside to working on the outside of our home, which seriously needed more practical help anyway. As a remote worker, freelance writing for others from my home office, nothing has changed. The biggest changes are food and exercise — too much of one, and not enough of the other, for which I have had a personal trainer for the past few years. I am terrible at mustering up the initiative to exercise from home, so the most I do is walk, listening to Audible books as I note how nature has no idea what is going on with the humans around it.

I began assessing why I left the house before all this and came up with one conclusion — something I had never really thought about before: I leave home to buy things for the house or to go shopping—dress up a bit and walk around Nordstrom to try on the latest new Dior product, or file through the racks of clothes I wish I still had the body to wear. Apart from that, there were trips to LA by car or plane to see my daughter or an occasional mother-daughter weekend away. There is really nothing I am dying to do except take that trip we have had to postpone until next year and continue getting the rest of our house to match the parts that have already been remodeled.

So I wondered what is going on around us that might make us feel like the forgotten class, apart from warnings that we are the most vulnerable and knowing younger people are being told not to visit Grandma? Lately I am reading about how, while we are considered high risk, we are not the class of patients that gets the most attention from the scientific and medical communities. The Atlantic’s Louise Aronson, a geriatrician and professor of medicine at the UC San Francisco, in her article "Ageism Is Making the Pandemic Worse," says that despite our being the most at risk, “To my knowledge, protocols for elders, the most vulnerable group, still don’t exist. This isn’t a UCSF-specific practice; it’s standard throughout the country. American medicine lumps elders in with adults, despite abundant evidence that drugs and diseases behave differently in older bodies.”

Source: pexels

And then there are the kids. The ones we used to prompt to keep their jackets on as they got on the school bus. We knew the moment they were out of sight, they would stuff them into their backpacks, because jackets were not cool. But we maintained a fantasy that once in a while they would forget and keep them on. Those kids grew up and many became parents themselves. And now? They are suddenly trying to parent their parents. Never before had I heard my daughter freak out over having a construction worker do work inside my house, despite my telling her I stayed several rooms away and he worked behind a zippered plastic door. 

When chatting with friends, I was to find that their children were behaving similarly. A former coworker spoke of how she was taking care of her 96-year old mother. At the time, her 23-year old son was beginning to act like a parent to both her and her mom, who subsequently passed away shortly before lockdown. “At some point he felt he could take on the parent role with me. I was amused at first. But after a few instances where he over-explained or oversaw me performing a task, I started to be annoyed. When and why did I become this frail or feeble woman?”

No one has a crystal ball to show us what life might be like after this particular scare ends. I have read with great interest about the significant lifestyle changes that took place after the last wave of the Spanish Flu of 1918. Perhaps we will never shake hands with strangers again as a sign of courtesy. Perhaps “air kisses” will take place farther away from someone’s face. Video-chat and more communication might have actually become a lasting habit, as will saying hello to neighbors we pass on the street. Let’s hope so. Aronson eloquently ends her article with, “Keeping older people uninfected and alive shouldn’t be the country’s only goal for this vulnerable group, nor should it be once the pandemic passes. After all, living in a society that values your well-being and basic humanity matters, too.”