The coronavirus pandemic, which particularly affects seniors, could prove to be a great opportunity to rethink the relationship our societies have with them, notes Martine Lagacé, a professor in the Department of Communication of the Faculty of Arts. “If, as a society, we learn the lessons from this health and social crisis, this pandemic could act as a trigger for developing public policies that further the social inclusion of seniors and fight ageism,” says Lagacé, who specializes in social gerontology.
A discourse of vulnerability
Early statistical data from Italy and France revealed that people over 70 accounted for most of the death toll from COVID-19. Those figures, widely echoed in the media, have perhaps inadvertently stigmatized seniors, who, according to studies, are already generally associated with the end of life, decline, frailty and vulnerability.
The whole age discourse has been very problematic in this crisis, according to Professor Lagacé. It raises questions about the value we place on the lives of our seniors and about intergenerational solidarity, which seems to come much less into play when seniors are on the front lines. The “Boomer-remover” hashtag that appeared on social media to refer to the high mortality rate of elderly people affected by the virus is one such example of ageism, that the researcher deems particularly disturbing.
The scientifically documented issues arising from the isolation of seniors have been exacerbated by the extreme lockdown measures currently enforced. For the researcher, they highlight the importance of implementing targeted measures that address senior citizens’ specific needs, to combat social, financial, technological and even medical inequities that affect many of them.
In a situation of mandatory social distancing, Lagacé asks, “How do you cope when you live alone and without children to pick up your groceries? How do you avoid eating meals in the residence cafeteria when you don’t have the extra resources to have trays delivered to your room? How do you get information or maintain social contact when you don’t have access to the internet, Zoom, Teams or any connection other than a voice on the phone?”
A response designed for our seniors
Professor Lagacé believes that the $9 million in special aid announced by the federal government to support seniors during the COVID-19 crisis is crucial to helping community organizations such as the United Way or Meals on Wheels increase their ability to offer meal delivery and mental health phone support services, which have been hard hit due to a shortage of volunteers.
She notes, however, that these emergency funds were announced more than three weeks after the implementation of social distancing and lockdown measures. “During this time, this group has been physically, mentally and socially weakened,” says Lagacé. “We could have learned from other countries that seniors over 70 were the most vulnerable, and the most affected by COVID-19.”
“Would more drastic measures have been taken more swiftly if the virus had targeted younger people or struck daycare centres?” asks Lagacé, who studies the issues of ageism with a particular interest in potential forms of discrimination based on age. “Would the general population have applied social distancing recommendations more systematically if those most vulnerable to the virus were younger people?”
When the media reinforces ambivalence on the issue of age
For Martine Lagacé, the underlying question in media coverage of the pandemic is the value of life, as evidenced by the discrepancy with which victims of the virus have been treated according to their age. Younger victims have had their story told in a very personal way, sometimes even at the expense of a more scientific-based information, while the senior victims of COVID-19 are presented in an impersonal and anonymous manner, often like statistics.
“A more personalized coverage of older victims of the virus, and especially of those who survived it, would send a tremendous message of hope and appreciation for the place and role of the seniors in our societies!” she says. “If I put myself in the shoes of an 80-year-old person watching the news these days, I would say I’m almost doomed.”
The specialist in gerontology points out that, in this context of crisis, the medical community is not exempt from this persistent generational bias, and she highlights the potential risk of emergency service staff having to resort to patient screening for access to respirators based solely on age. “Our policies will therefore have to re-examine the fact that a senior citizen is at risk because resources are not available,” says Lagacé, for whom taking into account the overall health status and the recovery factor of a person should be the main criteria, regardless of age.
Learning lessons from the crisis
The sociologists, gerontologists, psychologists and researchers dealing with seniors are already working to ensure that in the aftermath of this crisis, all stakeholders will learn from the social, mental health, technological and economic inequities revealed by this pandemic. They are working to rethink the inclusion of seniors and intergenerational solidarity.
“We must give seniors a space to be visible and heard before, during and after a crisis,” advises Lagacé. “Ironically, while seniors may be the greatest victims of COVID-19 in numbers, they have also been the most absent from the public sphere.”
This health and social crisis has revealed the weak links in care delivery to older segments of the population. Developing research-based new practices related to aging and having policies more informed by inclusion could be a positive side effect of this pandemic, for Lagacé.