Happy In? Ageing and Ageism in the Age of Coronavirus and Cocooning

A version of this article appeared on RTE Brainstorm

It is almost a century since WB Yeats lamented that Ireland ‘was no country for old men.’ Yeats was just 60 years old when he bemoaned that ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing,’ feeling past it as he looked around at the young in one another’s arms.

Many men and women of a comparative age today would classify themselves as still ‘young’ and few would identify as ‘old’. As a recent New Yorker article testifies, the post-war ‘Boomer’ generation have been criticized – mostly by their adult children – for not initially taking the current coronavirus threat seriously enough, refusing to self-isolate because they do not see themselves as vulnerable. In the midst of a pandemic in which age and ageing are to the fore, this dissonance of definitions alerts us to the ways in which concepts of age differ and change.

From the outset of the Covid-19 crisis ageing and the so-called ‘elderly’ have been central – if evolving – themes in both policy and commentary, prompting not only medical responses but an array of social ones also. While the former have developed from empirical if continually evolving evidence, the latter can be seen as expressing ‘underlying conditions’ around our attitudes to ageing. Revealing these attitudes – acknowledging that ageing has social as well as biological meanings – has resulted in recent years in the emerging field of cultural gerontology which seeks to reveal and interrogate often monolithic constructions of older people. In relation to the coronovirus crisis we can see a familiar, but not necessarily inevitable, overlapping of biological and social constructions.

Age emerged as a key theme within the coronovirus pandemic from the beginning: the first confirmed deaths were men aged 61 and 69 years old in Wuhan in early January. Although this early phase had a lower median age of mortality – 55.5 – medical authorities soon noted and have since sadly had to repeatedly reconfirm that older patients were more susceptible to viral infection and pneumonia than other demographics. Additionally, and for reasons not yet fully understood, medical professionals across a number of locations have noted that the virus had a gendered element: since the beginning it has disproportionately affected men.

As the virus spread rapidly and with devastating consequences in Italy, ageing came to the fore as cultural and social explanations were sought to accompany the harrowing medical ones. Italy’s tactile, intergenerational culture as well as its ageing population were forwarded as important contributors to its alarming and distressing mortality rate. This analysis hastened a nuanced shift in advice from personal hygiene to ‘social distancing,’ ‘self-isolation’ and eventually ‘cocooning.’ This last term – used by Leo Varadkar in his extraordinary St Patrick’s Day speech – revealed an enlightened attitude to ageing, seeing it as a shared social rather than merely personal responsibility to ‘protect the most vulnerable, the most precious in our society.’

From the outset, the language of Irish governmental response to the emerging crisis was admirably clear and inclusive, seeking to both learn from the Italian tragedy while offering reassurance and a sense of collective purpose. On March 22nd for instance, Simon Coveney tweeted ‘It’s Mothers day – love your Mother and Grandmothers today by staying away from them in person: Stay close by staying away.’

This language contrasted notably with the UK where, as early as March 15th, British Health Secretary ‘Matt Hancock said that the British government will eventually be asking everyone over the age of 70 to self-isolate to stem the spread of coronavirus.’ Speaking to Sky News, Hancock said: ‘That is in the action plan, yes, and we will be setting it out with more detail when it is the right time to do so because we absolutely appreciate that it is a very big ask of the elderly and the vulnerable, but it’s for their own self-protection.’ This was notable in its underlying attitude of ‘parking’ the aged, seeing them as separate to the everyday business and daily life of British society which, it was anticipated at that stage, would continue without them.

While this was presented in terms of ‘self protection’, it also contained an allusion – consistent with Boris Johnson’s highly crafted persona – to Second World War era self-sacrifice. Hancock spoke in similar terms: ‘Our generation has never been tested like this. Our grandparents were during the second world war.’ That such ideas were primarily aimed at older people was particularly disingenuous and displayed an everyday ageism, dressed up as Second World War romance and nostalgia. After the UK was subsequently battered by the virus – including the near death of the PM himself – this appeared to undergo a reversal in the widespread media attention and celebration given to Captain Tom Moore, the ‘99 year old war veteran’ who walked around his garden, eventually raising 12 million for ‘front line’ health services. One could argue however that this was equally disingenuous: a calling out to older people to display a bit of entrepreneurial resilience and support – i.e. not sponge off – the NHS.

Such attitudes developed a sharper edge earlier in March when Jeremy Warner, assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph, penned a now infamous, but initially overlooked opinion piece in the paper: ‘Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.’ The piece prompted a widespread and vociferous backlash that called out such efficiency ageism and its links to broader economic and social policy.

This backlash did not however silence similar views in UK media and in a particularly cynical article in The Critic (March 31st), Toby Young returned to and amplified the original Tory response when called on the UK government to prevent further ‘economic cost’ by ‘limiting social distancing measures to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.’ In his chilling piece, Young downplays the death of potentially thousands as ‘acceptable collateral damage’ and provides a cost-benefit analysis regarding the value of the survivors’ remaining years.

Thus while the coronavirus has unmasked broader ageist attitudes suggesting that people over a certain age have little value in our society, the Irish political establishment is to be lauded for its adoption of the term cocooning early in the crisis. Speaking on RTE’s Morning Ireland in the aftermath of Varadkar’s St Patrick’s Day speech, Professor Sam McConkey from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland cogently explained the term: ‘Helping others who are in isolation to get the groceries and to maybe get some food and to help them with the practical realities of daily life . . . So cocooning is when others help the more vulnerable.’

While this seems a sensible approach to protect the vulnerable, requesting all 70+ year-olds to cocoon unwittingly reveals a number of ageist assumptions, so deeply ingrained in our society that they can easily go unnoticed. It suggests that this population are a homogenous group that can be lumped together as the ‘elderly’, a patronising term often associated with frailty and dependency. However, ageing in itself is not a disease and there are many 70+-year-olds who boast more robust health and more energetic dispositions than some people in their 40s or 50s.

Many 70+-year-olds are a productive part of society, as a recent report released by researchers from Trinity College Dublin confirms. Some have families – parents, children, grandchildren or partners – to care for, some are still an active part of the workforce, some are actively involved in voluntary, community and creative work, and many are retired health workers who may be called back to work should their expertise be needed.

With this in mind, the British Society of Gerontology released an important statement calling on their government ‘to reject the formulation and implementation of policy based on the simple application of chronological age.’ As they argue, determining at risk groups primarily along the lines of chronological age may be too simplistic an approach: ‘While people at all ages can be vulnerable to COVID-19, and all can spread the disease, not all people over the age of 70 are vulnerable, nor all those under 70 resilient.’

Although highly compliant, a notable feature among this age group in Ireland has been a polite but growing voice of dissent as isolation fatigue set in. An early voice was champion cyclist Sé O’Hanlon (78) who the Irish Times told us was ‘not a happy man’ and refused to stay in. More recent weeks have seen a growth in such voices, which while supportive of measures are getting restless with enforced isolation. Mid April saw a deluge of such opinion in the letters pages of newspapers and on radio. One letter writer wrote: ‘I feel that I have lost control of my own life. I feel that my civil liberties have been dented. I suddenly feel frail and elderly. I feel useless. I feel that I have been herded with a large group of people of varying characteristics, health, fitness and resilience, simply by virtue of the single factor of chronology. I understand that it is a statistically significant factor, but I feel that my individual humanity is being trampled on and that feels isolating and frightening.’ [Irish Times, Apr 14, 2020]. In an article entitled ‘A Voice from the Cocoon’ Fergus Armstrong offered a wry perspective from inside this experience: ‘Most of us locked-down septuagenarians, I suspect, are restless to escape to some kind of normality, albeit a ‘new normal’, that is largely unknown. Speaking personally, the experience of being herded into seclusion as a 70-plus, brings home as never before, the sense of foreshortened horizons.’

Alarming news coverage from a number of Western nations has suggested that medical doctors arre increasingly faced with harrowing decisions whose life to save in view of insufficient resources such as respirators, with people over a certain age ‘triaged’ – left to die – regardless of their chances of recovery. In view of this it is worth reconsidering the ethical implications and consequences of separating and marginalising older adults even with the best of intentions. Helping and protecting the vulnerable in our society is the right thing to do; but indiscriminately classifying the 70+, a far from homogenous age group, as ‘vulnerable’ might have disastrous longer term consequences for older adults’ health, social inclusion and well-being.

This is where we need to attend to Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s observation that we are very much ‘aged by culture’. Cultural gerontologists like Gullette have challenged ageist stereotypes by researching and highlighting the diversity of older age. Foremost among these stereotypes is the ‘master narrative of decline’, a term by which the leading age scholar refers to the conflation of older age with the loss of cognitive and physical abilities, and with ensuing dependency, frailty and lack of agency.

Acknowledging that these negatively connoted characteristics associated with the ‘decline narrative’ fail to reflect the actual lived experience of many older adults, gerontologists have instead suggested the term ‘the third age’ for the demographic of the ‘young old’, typically ranging from 65 to 80 years of age. These are in turn juxtaposed with the demographic of the ‘fourth age’ or ‘frail old’, those older adults in need of care. It is obvious that this categorisation bears its own inherent problems and that the divide between the third and the fourth age can only be inadequately drawn along the lines of chronological age. Yet these difficulties in themselves serve to indicate the problematic construction of age as a merely biological category.

What is more, by highlighting the value of characteristics associated with the third age, such as agency and autonomy, we run the risk of further marginalising and stigmatising the frail old. As Julia Twigg, another leading cultural gerontologist, has noted with regard to this demographic group, ‘These old remain eternally Other. And that sense of them as a wholly separate and fundamentally different category of being lies at the heart of how ageism operates.’ Lumping together all people of a certain age group – one that, incidentally, spans roughly three decades – as frail, vulnerable, and dependent is a form of ageism. Yet, so is the notion that the lives of cognitively or physically frail older people, for instance those with dementia, and in particular need of care and protection in the current crisis, might be in any way less valuable or meaningful.

While flattening the curve and saving lives is obviously the highest priority, it should not be ignored that the coronavirus crisis has brought subconsciously ageist assumptions to the fore. This insight leads us back to our starting point, Yeats’s poem about the woes and alleged ‘paltriness’ of old age. Culture plays a significant part in shaping our perceptions of older age, from overbearing patriarch to Irish Mammy. In view of such powerful stereotypes, Lynne Segal suggests that it might be time to look for ‘the less familiar cultural narratives that we might draw upon to provide more nuanced thoughts on ageing.’ To fully understand ageing we need to attend to its construction in literature, film, the media and other forms of cultural production.

Updated April 27th at 09:45.

Michaela Schrage-Frueh and Tony Tracy

Dr Michaela Schrage-Frueh is a Lecturer in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at NUI Galway. Dr Tony Tracy is Lecturer in the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, School of English and Creative Arts at NUI Galway. Both are participants in the Gender-Net Plus/ IRC funded EU project 'MascAge: Ageing Masculinities in European Literatures and Cinemas' which has a conference on this topic scheduled to take place at the Moore Institute in early Sept 2020. https://irishmascage.com www.mascage.eu