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Kathy Sheridan: Let the over-70s have a walk

A designated time each day would help those struggling in mandatory confinement

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the dangers of pigeonholing. It was a gentle warning that the phrase “elderly with underlying conditions” was in danger of migrating to the land of euphemisms such as “collateral damage”. A label that started life as a kind of reassurance to the lucky ones outside it was becoming a soulless catch-all for an amorphous blob.

We know that every millennial is not a no-platforming snowflake and that every 74 year old is not a grumpy old bigot. We know that there are 70-somethings who head countries and businesses, rear grandchildren, run marathons, swim the Forty Foot daily and travel across warzones to research their novels.

Danger lies in sweeping whole groups of people into blobs. Language matters.

Three weeks ago, when I wrote about the dangers of labelling, no one in this jurisdiction (or none that I knew of) had plans to cull the elderly with a virus. When the Taoiseach announced school closures, it effectively heralded a national shut-down for a mostly relieved populace. But our nearest neighbour, with whom we share a land border, was taking a more relaxed view. Cheltenham, for example, was attracting hordes of idiotic Irish national hunt fans. Dominic Cummings, the sage of Brexit Britain and de facto ruler of all he surveyed until he sprinted out of No 10 with virus symptoms, had set out the British government’s strategy at a private meeting in February. This was characterised as “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”, according to the Sunday Times.

This was our nearest neighbour.

That was what prompted my column about language, which was greeted with deep indignation in some quarters. “Get off my case, Ms Sheridan. I refuse to be appropriated as a member of one of your ‘victim’ categories,” retorted one offended regular, who trumpeted his good fortune in having loving, attentive relatives.

It is a very odd situation where a supermarket can organise separate, safe shopping hours for people who are older or vulnerable while the incalculable psychological and physical benefits of a short walk outdoors are denied to them.

In a pattern that has become familiar in these “discussions”, it becomes evident that some people have other problems with the writer. It’s probably a gender thing. Women writers are often regarded as a blob as opposed to individuals and therefore damned together. Which is another manifestation of the problem with being reduced to a blob or a label.

We know all about blobs which is why we fear them.

And how did that develop from a column about ageism, you might ask. Well, because in the space of 800 words, I and other journalists who happened to be women had failed to mention that men were more likely to be victims of the virus than women (this has been widely observed) or had failed to pin the blame on China or swivelled a suspicious eye on Porton Down. But mainly, I was “condescending” – which is odd, since I am pretty much in the ageing blob as well as the woman blob – and I was looking for stigma where there was none.

That was only three weeks ago. In the meantime, every single person in this country aged 70 and over has been ordered to stay within their homes.

Sad reality

Those with the will and the skill to fill the freezer, do some DIY, clean out the attic, sprint around the garden (if they have one), familiarise themselves with Zoom and Google Hangout, were up for the challenge. But what price the psychological and physical consequences of being told you are too old and vulnerable to go for a short walk nearby? Which of our indignant correspondents anticipated an undefined term in mandatory confinement for the blob to which they belong?

A quick scan of the letters pages reflects the reality. One writer said he now knows how it feels to be a hamster “running round in a wheel inside his cage”. Another was not demanding solutions or explanations, just to have her feelings “heard with empathy”.

The deepening sadness in a group suddenly defined as too vulnerable to step beyond their doors is too serious to ignore. They have put on their game faces. None of them lacks awareness of the pressing reasons behind the lockdown or is seeking to place blame. But it is a very odd situation where a supermarket can organise separate, safe shopping hours for people who are older or vulnerable while the incalculable psychological and physical benefits of a short walk outdoors are denied to them.

A designated “walking hour” each day – or even the luxury choice of an hour in the morning or evening – for the over-70s is hardly an insuperable ask. It would simply mean that others would have to confine their outings to the other 22 or 23 hours in the day. I’m perfectly happy to stay at home for two designated hours a day. Who is prepared to say they are not? Can we just do it now ?