‘The Covid lock-down has brought older people into the spotlight,’ commented a journalist, ‘but do you think in the right way?’ He was referring to media portrayals of older people as all frail and needing help and protection. He was also echoing sentiments by the American Psychologists Society on how, during the COVID-19 pandemic ‘ageism endangers all of society by dividing generations at a time when unity is particularly important.*
Ageism affects every generation, say the experts. Children and young adults exposed to negative stereotypes about older people apply them to themselves when they get older, which can damage their health, even leading to an early death. It gives a new meaning to the motto that has emerged in the crisis that ‘we’re all in this together.’
Processor Hans-Werner Wahl, of Heidelberg University in Germany said that ageism is damaging the intergenerational solidarity that’s needed during the current COVID-19 crisis. It could be causing younger people who view themselves as “lower risk” for infection to resent older generations for the need for stay-at-home precautions and ignore the self-distancing rules.
Shevaun Neupert, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, says there’s a general message in society that anyone who is older is equally vulnerable and at risk for contracting the virus. She believes that approach, where younger people are strong and healthy and older people aren’t, is too primitive and simplistic. *
There have been questions in the media about whether it was right to sacrifice the prospects of the young by protecting older people. Media stakeholders were challenged recently by the Centre for Better Ageing about the negative stories they publish about older people, challenging them to change their narrative. They admitted the charge, but justified it by saying that what was their readers expected, and it helped sales.
Professor Neupert points out that some of the best ways to combat any ‘-ism’ is to build a personal relationship that challenges stereotypical beliefs. My former colleague Janet, who is also a friend, told me how this had worked very successfully in her church. A couple of years ago her pastor asked everyone over the age of 50 to stand, and then invited everyone under that age to introduce themselves to one or two and find out all about them. Lasting friendships had developed, and they met regularly until the Covid lock-down, keeping in touch now with phone calls and cards.