By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D., Executive Director, Colony Retirement Homes
“Age does not bring wisdom. Its only advantage, so far as I have been able to see, is that it spans change. A young person sees the world as a still picture, immutable. An old person has had his nose rubbed in changes and more changes and still more changes so many times that he knows it is a moving picture, forever changing. He may not like it – probably doesn’t; I don’t – but he knows it’s so, and knowing it is the first step in coping with it.” – Novelist Robert A. Heinlein
2020 is now half over. We have battled coronavirus and many of our oldest and dearest have lost the battle. We are looking at a “new normal” which is just a convenient way of telling our old and frail that they are on their own – responsible for isolating or facing death while the rest of the world gets back to living.
This “new normal” has several significant side effects. If our most vulnerable members are afraid to come out of the house, they risk becoming invisible. They may be marginalized because they are easier to forget. They may be perceived as living in fear. If they cannot work, they may become increasingly dependent on social security and other programs. They may gravitate more toward elder housing and other specialized living situations to maintain their social life, further pulling them away from society’s view.
Youth may also come to fear the aged – “Don’t get too close to Grandma!” may become something more nefarious and ingrained. Youth may certainly embrace their responsibility of keeping away and grow to see no role for themselves in the lives and care of their older family members. Older people may not be able to help take care of grandchildren so their parents can work. This will strain the daycare budgets of those who rely on family help and further push the elderly out of the sight of the young.
Workplaces will also react. Unemployment is at a record high. When choosing between an older worker and a younger worker, employers may take COVID-19 risk into consideration. Such a choice may cause older adults to leave the workforce before they intended to. The opportunity for older workers to contribute meaningfully may be few and far between.
As our elders will be “out of sight, out of mind” our society will continue to think only of people who are older as in nursing homes, completely dependent.
How do we combat this? Of course, the first preference is a vaccine. But there are other things we can, and must do to combat this changing image.
- Employers must seek to keep their workforces healthy by reducing risk. As Gov. Baker has laid out plans to reopen the economy, the burden is on employers to protect workers regardless their vulnerability to COVID-19.
- Employers in the aging services need to go above and beyond to embrace the needs of aging members of society by employing more when possible. If they are safer in these smaller environments, let’s also make a point to keep them economically safer too.
- Older workers must embrace change, our elders should figure out Zoom and other technologies, and determine for themselves how they can contribute in a remote world.
- Youth must make a point to engage with grandparents and older neighbors by whatever means possible, socially distanced visiting, Facetime, and online game play or other interactions.
- Elder publications, such as The Fifty Plus, must make sure that elders are portrayed in a variety of settings, perhaps even over emphasizing healthy and productive aging until elders can emerge, once again, and join society.
Without exaggeration, this period after COVID’s surge is going to redefine aging and how society views the elderly. We must get ahead of this issue to preserve a positive image of aging.