We all count as human beings, and that is where I want to be counted: with everyone else, not separately as elderly and vulnerable
“Oh no, not another set of punitive, paternalistic rules to curtail my freedom and those of my age when I belong to the group least to blame for the climbing numbers of Covid-19 cases!” was my initial, admittedly selfish, thought about measures announced yesterday to curb the resurgence of the pandemic.
But there are deeper issues that concern me, far more than loss of personal freedom. Yes, of course, all of us need to play our part in stopping the virus and preventing another lockdown. The first is that we are heading for a form of age apartheid, (a term used recently by Dr Gabriel Scally, who headed the scoping inquiry into the cervical cancer scandal), where we create a division between generations by singling out us older people as a separate group from the rest of society.
And what’s more, it subjects us to more restrictive rules than everyone else to control the rise in Covid-19, although we are probably the very people who have behaved most responsibly and at greatest personal cost.
The latest measures introduced for the over-70s, supposedly to protect us, with limited social contact, separate shopping hours and less freedom, are precisely the opposite of what older people need to help them age well under normal conditions. Social contact is vital to prevent the damaging effects of isolation.
Study after study has found that supportive social contact and relationships are related to decreased mortality risk. In Ireland, 30pc of over-65s are home alone without being further isolated. Also being singled out in this way reinforces a negative stereotype about being old, both for us older people ourselves and the way the rest of society views us.
There is also the assumption, infuriating to me and I am sure to my peers, that old people are all the same. We are all lumped together as one amorphous bunch often described as elderly and vulnerable, whereas people age very differently. Some over-70s, sadly, are frail and in need of care. Some of us may still be working or even running marathons and some of us may be more vulnerable than others (something that warrants more research).
We surely want to encourage our ageing population – due to double over the next 30 years – to be as independent, capable and healthy as possible. And if there is one thing which this wretched virus has brought home to me, it’s that we need a serious rethink about policy on ageing and older people to ensure that we can be more involved and contribute more, rather than being sidelined by the number of candles on our birthday cakes.
Another of my concerns is that the rise in the number of cases is due partly to past neglect on the part of government: like the conditions and lack of rights in meat and food processing plants, and the conditions in direct provision centres which have caused clusters of virus outbreaks.
I am not reassured by nebulous nature of the advice originating via the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). There are confusing messages about whether staycations for over-70s are allowed or not. Why are hotels ruled out and not B&Bs? Why can we only have six people in our homes but 50 at weddings? Where is the evidence for this kind of decision? I wonder if the wisdom and experience of older people would result in better advice.
A friend recently posed a question for me: “Is it worth shutting down the global economy for the sake of people who are on the way out and going to die anyway in a few years?” Shocking, yes, but it’s an elephant in the room where the vulnerability of elders is concerned. Philosophically, I would be prepared to risk departing a bit earlier than expected if it helped to prevent the misery and hardship caused by economic meltdown.
But it’s not as simple as that. Who else would I put at risk? What about the front-line workers in hospitals if they try to treat or save me? And what about flying in the face of the admirable sanctity we place on human life in Ireland where no one, no matter what age, should be lost? We all count as human beings, and that is where I, for one, want to be counted: with everyone else, not separately as elderly and vulnerable.
Marianne Heron is a retirement coach and author of ‘Rewire, don’t Retire’, sponsored by Irish Life.
All nursing home staff will have to undergo mandatory training in infection control to help prevent residents suffering the devastating effects of a second wave of Covid-19 in the coming months.