The American comedian Groucho Marx famously said ‘I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me’, an attitude that resonated with many older people in the early days of Covid-19 when they suddenly found themselves consigned to a separate group. People who had never defined themselves by age, woke up to discover they were part of a frail and vulnerable cohort. Everyone understood the medical reasons – septuagenarians who contract the virus face greater risk due to physiological changes in ageing. However, there was still hurt and indignation at the way the message was conveyed. Thousands of over 70s were expected to fade out of the picture, without, it seemed, any understanding of the effect this would have on their sense of self, and no debate on the loss to family, community and society at this banishing.
SeniorLine, Ireland’s dedicated peer-to-peer national telephone service for older people learnt at first-hand how they felt about it. We had circa 10,000 calls in 2019, and in spring 2020, call volumes rose by 200%+. People were scared as well as angry. We provided factual information, guidance on self-protection, and updates on the increasing range of helpful community services springing up in response.
How have older people fared since? Having family and friends, an inner resilience and a garden have emerged as major assets at this time. SeniorLine analysed data over the first phase of the pandemic, and concluded that social, personal and environmental factors combine to play a crucial role in mental and emotional health. This is not news, but a particularly relevant finding for these days.
We identified two worrying aspects that need attention. First, are the potential negative long-term effects in being isolated home alone for so long. If told repeatedly that the only safe place is home, it is understandable that you now feel it’s dangerous to venture out. Many callers needed guidance and support in returning safely to normal life. It is not good for older people to be shut away, and the not helpful for the community to be deprived of our contribution and our voice.
However, freedom must be tempered with prudence. While the virus infection rate has decreased in the general population, it has not gone away. We must learn to live in a new considered and careful way for the foreseeable future, while hoping a vaccination will be discovered soon.
Second, the virus has revealed a paternalistic attitude, however unconscious, held towards older people, and many felt resentment at their representation to the general population. ‘We were all lumped together as one. I did not recognise myself in the headlines’ said Elizabeth. Others agreed, objecting to the homogenous nature of the message characterising all septuagenarians as weak and needing protection.
Much of the preparation for societal ageing concentrates on its costs, and Covid-19 highlighted this. We need to prepare for an ageing Ireland in a more positive way, to realise the contribution that older people make, and to implement policies to facilitate this. Older people are an asset. We make a significant economic and social contribution to families, communities and society. Depriving us of this opportunity means that we all lose out.
Covid has been the catalyst for the good and the bad. The long pause in commercial life has been good for the environment, global demand for energy is set to fall by 6%, global warming has been slowed, though we don’t know for how long. Locally, the world has been quieter, butterflies have made a return, the voice of the cuckoo has been heard this spring. Adversity has also brought out the best in many. There have been heart-warming examples of kindness and altruism all over the world.
Finally, the pandemic has coincided with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, begun in America, currently receiving much global support. Fifty-five years ago, a young black singer, Sam Cooke wrote a song that became the anthem of the civil rights movement. I’ve been listening to it a lot these days and find it extremely moving. The repeated refrain is ‘It’s been a long time coming. But I know that change is gonna come’. Let us all hope this is true.
SeniorLine Freefone 1800 80 45 91, open every day of the year 10am-10pm www.thirdageireland.ie