On Monday, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick essentially said that the economic well-being of the country was more important than the lives of older people. The Republican politician was riffing on a theme that President Donald Trump has been hammering at this week, framing the dilemma posed by the coronavirus as either save the entire U.S. economy or tolerate a few more deaths. "We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself," Trump tweeted Sunday.
Or as Patrick put it: "No one reached out to me and said, 'as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?'" He continued, "And if that's the exchange, I'm all in."
The implication of Patrick's comments was that older people are a burden on society and should be willing to risk being infected by COVID-19 to make sure that all other Americans are able to patronize bars, restaurants and stores. "Let's get back to work," said Patrick, who turns 70 next month. "Those of us who are 70-plus, we'll take care of ourselves. But don't sacrifice the country."
The widespread condemnation his statements received obscured the fact that Patrick was merely speaking out loud a prejudice that's been lurking in the American psyche for quite a while, even among people who are older.
There is already a widespread belief, reflected in our jokes, our films and our TV programs, that people have a sell-by date when it comes to being valuable and productive. That's been an annoying fact of life for millions of older Americans. But now, it's more serious. Ageism is skewing the way we perceive the coronavirus, and it's making this pandemic more dangerous for everyone.
By largely focusing on the need to protect the one segment of the U.S. population that's at the greatest risk of death from the virus — those over 60 — public health messengers may have done more harm than good. The way that fact has been delivered has tended to reinforce the notion that all older Americans are frail and vulnerable while making younger people feel invincible.
Almost all warnings to younger people to take precautions have largely appealed to their altruism. As Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of hard-hit Washington, so plainly put it, "going to the bar" might be tantamount to "killing your granddad."
These cautions have implied that younger people could pretty much ignore health advice as long as they kept away from older family members and friends, even though it turns out that nearly 40 percent of the 2,500 patients in the U.S. needing hospitalization over the past few weeks were ages 20 to 54. Thus encouraged, young adults have flouted the rules all around the world, congregating in bistros in Paris and pubs in London and on beaches in Florida.
Meanwhile, coronavirus has inflamed age-based stereotypes, such as the trope of the old white man who yells "Get off my lawn!" or the battle-ax-wielding mother-in-law or the dithering elderly couple long a part of American popular culture. And it's only made more loaded the dismissive term "senior citizen," used to describe people of varying abilities, interests, backgrounds and health who share only a common age range. Now the coronavirus has seen these sentiments become more hardhearted and cruel, encapsulated in the biting social media COVID-19 meme "boomer remover."
I am 60-plus, and I take seriously that I'm at greater risk of getting sicker and dying from COVID-19, something especially true for older adults with underlying health conditions. That said, too many of the warnings in circulation convey the perception that all older people are the same: frail grandparents, longing to see their children and grandchildren, alone and isolated.
And that's a problem. Older people are treated as if they are automatically technologically inept and less informed about the world and have opinions that don't need to be taken into consideration. There's an economic cost to that: Even in periods of low unemployment, experienced and competent older workers often find it difficult to compete for jobs for which they are qualified. There's also a psychological cost: The need to hide one's age and gloss over one's history, to somehow feel ashamed of the wisdom you've amassed over the years, diminishes one's spirit and sense of confidence.
This is extremely detrimental to seniors, but it's also detrimental to the broader society. In this time of great need, governors are asking retired health care workers to volunteer their services, despite their ages and the greater risks to their health. If everyone had adopted the idea that this cohort was expendable and useless, these resources wouldn't be tapped. Think how much more we could accomplish if the good ideas and productivity of older people were always welcomed and encouraged.
Yet discussions of COVID-19 often don't distinguish between the well-aged and engaged, like 79-year-old pandemic expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the frail elderly in nursing homes. This means that we also might not be properly targeting our advice and resources.
Americans ages 65 and older constitute more than 18 percent of the U.S. labor force. The three leading contenders for the presidency this year are in their 70s. The key senators and members of Congress working to complete a major legislative package to address the crisis are almost all older. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., born in 1940, has given up neither her high heels nor her political clout.
The truth is, all of us — whatever our ages — should take precautions. By implying that this is primarily an older person's problem, we ignore the real risks to younger people, and we reinforce the ageism that already persists in our society.
Someday, COVID-19 will be a more manageable problem. But the residue of prejudice against older people that remains may linger for years to come.
- Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of “Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope.”
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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