Are you prejudiced against the elderly? Am I? We both would probably deny it. Our actual attitudes, though, would probably be revealed better by what we do than by what we say.
Views of the elderly in America have always been complex—favorable in some respects, negative in others. Thomas R. Cole’s book The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America, which I described in more detail here, covers how the elderly were seen from colonial times onward. It was longer ago than most of us might imagine—around 1790—that Americans first developed a proclivity to favor youth over age. The Victorians thought that for many, old age represented decline, but this fate could be avoided by dint of hard work, faith, and self-discipline. Efforts to provide social welfare programs for the elderly in the early 20th century depended on portraying them as sick, poor, and needy. Over the last fifty years, the fight against ageism has promoted the opposite stereotype: “Old people are (or should be) healthy, sexually active, engaged, productive, and self reliant.” (Cole, p. 229)
Of course not all seniors fit that characterization. Sooner or later, many of us wind up sick or needy. According to CDC statistics from a few years ago, there were 1.3 million Americans in nursing homes and another 800,000 in assisted living communities. This population typically receives little public attention, but that has changed over the last few months as reports of nursing home deaths due to covid19 have proliferated. According to a report a couple weeks ago in the New York Times, about a third of covid19 deaths were of nursing home residents or staff. And, through May 16, 80% of covid19 deaths in the US were of people 65 or older.
A recent column by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post was titled “America’s Seniors, sacrificed on the altar of reopening.” Milbank points out how vulnerable our oldest and sickest seniors are to dying of this virus. He describes how ill-prepared care facilities are to prevent infection. And he notes how the push to reopen the economy threatens this population:
“For frail seniors in the United States, there simply is no haven. The unspoken, if inherent, trade-off in reopening the economy without safeguards is the lives of our elders. Two months ago, Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas who was about to turn 70, argued that those his age and older are ‘willing to take a chance on [their own] survival’ to reopen the economy. Now they have no choice.”
So how do we Americans view the elderly? Few of us would state that they are expendable. But doesn’t our willingness to imperil vulnerable seniors suggest that that is what we believe? This is not to say that more businesses couldn’t be opened safely. But the eagerness to discard masks expresses better than would words how little value is placed on the lives of our seniors. Similarly, frequenting places like nail salons, sit-down restaurants, gyms, crowed beaches, and churches shows indifference to how spreading the virus is likely to eventually infect more older adults. As someone older than 70, it’s hard not to take that personally. My greater concern is for my 94-year-old mother, who would be unlikely to survive infection.
So, thanks to Milbank for his thoughtful column. The message I take from his observations is that I had better do everything I can to prevent infection, since significant numbers of my fellow citizens don’t plan to look out either for my welfare or for that of those older and sicker than me.