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Kathy Sheridan: Negative stereotyping of older people can knock several years off a life

Covid has exposed insidious ageism in society that has serious implications

The hospital questionnaire included the routine question about falls. The Yes box was ticked, only because there had been a couple of limb breakages, one caused by a wobbly ladder and the second when a large dog bolted with this escort attached.

The kind of splats that happen to any moderately active person of any age, as this patient might have explained if asked. Observe the age spectrum in any orthopaedic clinic.

Without explanation, a big yellow wrist band was attached to one arm. This was, it emerged, a dazzling designation of its wearer as a “falls risk”. Would a 40-year-old Sunday footballer with a history of unspecified “falls” find himself flourishing a big yellow wristband for an unrelated hospital procedure?

Hospital Report

Slips and falls can be catastrophic in advancing years so caution is advised, but for this patient – still bouncing between what psychologists call middle age and late adulthood – it was a jarring reminder of how ageing is perceived and experienced. A reminder of how people are defined by a birth-date and how an accretion of “normal for your age” comments can seed a sense of confidence-draining vulnerability and decline.

Of course it is unintentional much of the time. The protocols are there for the best of reasons. It can look a lot like ageism nonetheless.

But that’s just another irritating “ism” spun by the overly sensitive, right? No. The implications are far more serious.

The conversation around assisted dying, for example, cannot be evaded indefinitely. But even strong supporters would agree that the main objection is well-founded: that some of the aged, the chronically or terminally ill people who already believe they are a burden might feel pressurised to relieve loved ones and society of that burden if legal hurdles were abolished. Ergo, society as a whole must be protected from this “thin end of the wedge”.

Obese people are hugely at risk from Covid; now imagine if everyone over a certain weight had been told they couldn't leave the house?

But people’s convictions, beliefs and feelings do not exist in isolation. In this argument, a society grounded in ageism and ableism is assumed.

Images from the pandemic – the food baskets, the smiles through windows – tell part of the story. The other part is the pervasive, powerful stereotyping around ageing.

It was ageism that enabled the introduction of arbitrary cocooning rules in the pandemic, says Prof Rose Anne Kenny, founding principal investigator of Tilda, the longitudinal study on the experience of ageing in Ireland. Loneliness increased threefold. Since the quality of an individual’s social engagement is as strong a factor in physical ageing as whether they smoke or exercise or have low cholesterol, the cocooning policy has just as surely contributed to physical and mental deterioration and declining confidence.

For many of the young, this finally is their time. The delayed first kisses, the college rites of passage, the first work shifts in normal office conditions are happening at last and the years stretch out ahead. For others a decade or two ahead of them, workplace reform has been accelerated; humane choices undreamt of a few years ago are now in the mix.

But for many older people, there is the sense that a disproportionate part of their dwindling years has been lost that can never be retrieved. It was all just for their protection, of course. Aren’t they alive? Are they not grateful?

The test, as stated by Prof Kenny, is whether it could have happened to any other group. Obese people are hugely at risk from Covid; now imagine if everyone over a certain weight had been told they couldn’t leave the house? But it was easy to introduce those policies because generally speaking, society is quite ageist, she told the Irish Examiner. We had no problem picking an age but failed to ask enough questions about how those policies could impact on age.

At the same time the large congregated settings that are home to older people became Covid’s ground zero.

Do we even know who we are talking about when we refer to “older people” ? Maureen Gaffney notes that some researchers have abandoned the idea of life stages altogether because they rarely fit anymore.

If older people get spiky over some real or 'jokey' stereotyping, they have good reason. They should be livid

People entering their late 60s now don’t quite know what to call it – but they certainly do not consider themselves old. Most report feeling about 10 years younger than they actually are, says Gaffney. For them, old age is still a long way off, sometime in their 80s maybe, or associated with a steep decline in health. In Ireland, a man of 65 can expect to live another 17.6 years. At 65, a woman might have another 19 years ahead. This is one of the state’s great triumphs.

To feel younger than you are is powerful medicine. It has a measurable effect on how long you will live.

The converse is also true. Negative stereotyping can make you feel older and will knock several years off your life.

If older people get spiky over some real or “jokey” stereotyping, they have good reason. They should be livid.

This is not just a discussion for politicians and healthcare professionals. It is for all of society because most “isms” start in childhood. Everyone will face this some day. Let this be another pandemic lesson well learned.