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Ageism and Illness

Since the earliest warning signs about the novel coronavirus it became clear that, for reasons that are still not completely understood, elderly people were the most likely to become seriously ill. As the new disease quickly spread and countries began implementing restrictions to help prevent more people becoming sick, many lamented, “It only kills old people!” and worse.

It is true that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “older adults” (those who are over age 65), when COVID-19 affected people in China, it appeared to be fatal to mostly people with underlying health conditions and those over age 65. Some of the earliest reports of the illness in North America were at a nursing home, further embedding the notion that this population was at a very high risk and inadvertently fueling ageism.

Of course, the unfolding reality is more complicated and it now appears that even very young people with no known underlying health conditions can become severely ill.

It’s not clear if this ageism comes from people who feared contracting the novel coronavirus from someone who is much older, or that they just believed they would not get sick themselves because of their lack of advanced years and therefore should not have to alter their behavior. Either way, conversations about and with people who are at higher risk for the illness should be kind and sensitive to reduce stress and hurt feelings.

How to Talk to Elder Loved Ones

As many able-bodied and healthy seniors learned of the virus, their adult children reported to the news that their parents weren’t adhering to the new social distancing guidelines, much to their horror. People went on social media to complain that their 70-something mom was going out to dinner with friends or that they were trying to keep 80-something parents from “sneaking out” for a trip to the grocery store.

It’s a delicate topic to tell an elder what they can and cannot do, why someone younger is considered at less risk, and how to behave—especially with something as new as “social distancing.”

In order to avoid sounding ageist when trying to keep a loved one safe from contracting a potentially fatal illness, it’s helpful to stick to facts without judgement and keep your own fears out of the discussion. Consider this language when trying to convince a loved one to stay safe and respect the new—probably temporary—rules:

  1. How can I help you to feel less lonely right now?
  2. What do you need that I can drop off for you?
  3. Tell me more about what you think of this situation.

By asking for their opinion, truly listening, and offering assistance, you can show you care without insults or causing stress. Show respect for their autonomy and life experience in your communication.

Friendly Ways

While the blatant ageism is shocking, there is some good news from the new social distancing and other efforts to protect all people—especially those at the highest risk for the most serious symptoms—there have been some sweet adaptions.

Many grocery stores have changed their hours so that their oldest customers have an hour to shop at their own pace, without additional concerns about picking up the virus from asymptomatic people or those not wearing masks or taking other precautions.

For some, it’s been an opportunity to introduce technology and expand the ways in which they can visit with family. Now people in their 80s and 90s are being introduced to things like FaceTime and being wowed by the possibilities.

There will likely be some changes like this that stick and last well beyond the pandemic to decrease ageism and loneliness.

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