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Stop Treating Old People Like We're About to Drop Dead

Stop treating old people like we’re about to drop dead

COVID-19 is not only exacerbating negative stereotypes about seniors, but legitimizing them.

ADOBE STOCK

Like most people I’ve been contemplating the ways the coronavirus has upended my plans. These range from the likely postponement of my daughter’s June wedding to the probable rescheduling of my fall adventure: a 500-mile hike in Spain.

Then came a text from my neighbors next door, shut in with a baby and a toddler. “Let us know if there’s anything we can help you with in the midst of all this,” they wrote. It was a kind and generous gesture, typical of their everyday thoughtfulness. So why was I bristling?

Because I suspected they were offering help since I’m (gasp!) over 60. Which, in the Age of Coronavirus, has been defined as frail or vulnerable. I’ve been hypersensitive to this stereotype since my 50s. That’s when a lot of things went from normal to weird. People started to ask me if I was “still” working. Acquaintances told me I looked good “for my age.” A friend suggested I downsize and sell my house.

But I’m still living, I wanted to object. It was as if I’d been casually going about my busy life and accidentally wandered through the Door of Decrepitude. As though people have a shelf date and mine was about to expire.

Their text hit a nerve because I’ve watched how COVID-19 is not only exacerbating negative stereotypes about older people, but legitimizing them. The King of Callousness is Dan Patrick, the 70-year-old lieutenant governor of Texas who opined that older people might want to sacrifice themselves during the pandemic for the good of the economy. It prompted New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to shoot back: “My mother’s not expendable.

The virus has revealed a chilling truth: There are Americans who think elders are expendable.

It didn’t take long for the meme “Boomer Remover” to trend on Twitter, which I might have dismissed as merely tasteless if not for the fact that Massachusetts policy makers have decided to do this very thing: Remove and relocate hundreds of nursing home residents to make way for COVID-19 patients. Horrified families are warning of “transfer trauma.


But why not sacrifice the old? How much longer will they live, anyway? People are actually saying this out loud! The theologian Shai Held wrote in The Atlantic about a Facebook post by a friend in Manhattan, saying “I heard a guy who looked to be in his 20s say that it’s not a big deal cause the elderly are gonna die anyway. Then he and his friend laughed.”

Held suggests that some are trying to “dress up their heartlessness” as generational retribution—“a sad bit of fair play”—for the environmental mess that’s caused climate change.

Maybe so. But the table was set for this moment long ago. In her powerful 2016 book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, Ashton Applewhite offers a tidy list of condescending terms embedded in our culture: Hag, spinster, crone, old fogey, old fart, old goat, little old lady, dirty old man, sweet old thing, geezer, biddy, codger, coot.

Not only are these labels insulting, they’re obsolete, out of sync with the reality of 2020. “Sixty isn’t the new forty, but it is a new sixty,” writes Applewhite.

My grandparents’ idea of a good time was to go to a department store on Saturdays and sit in the mezzanine lobby. All afternoon. I never once saw my parents take a walk. But many of today’s older people, myself included, are still building on a lifetime of physical fitness, preventive medicine, and healthy eating habits. Like many of my kale-eating peers (at least those of us privileged enough to have disposable income), I belong to a gym. I’ve been on a swim team for 20 years, sharing the same lane with two women now in their early 80s who can still kick my butt in backstroke. We don’t think of them as old. We just think of them as swimmers.

Yet the media persists in classifying us as outliers, old people who are “still active.” As opposed to what? Waiting to die? Even this newspaper let a doozy slip recently in a story about seniors and social distancing. It quoted a 76-year-old woman who “still does her own grocery shopping.” Give the old biddy a medal!

Applewhite is optimistic that growing awareness of age bias will fuel the emerging anti-ageism movement. But for now, I’m bracing for the inevitable nasty comments from younger readers who’ll say I’m not taking the coronavirus threat seriously, that I’m in denial about how old and vulnerable I am.

Please save your breath and your “OK boomer” barbs. If anyone’s not in denial about my vulnerability, it’s me. I spent four years caring for my fiftysomething husband until he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. I emerged from it very aware of the fragility of life. Sadder, yes, but stronger than ever, more determined to stay on the planet and enjoy every last minute of it.