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How COVID-19 Intensified Ageism

Virus-g9628219e3_1920Those Boomers who have already been vaccinated and boostered are probably relieved to know that on March 29, the Food and Drug Administration authorized second booster shots for COVID-19 for everyone 50 and older. Having grown up with an understanding of how effective immunization is against such diseases as polio, Boomers are among the more accepting of vaccines.

When the pandemic first started, individuals with underlying conditions of any age, along with Americans age 65 and older, were prioritized to receive vaccinations. This was a sound decision since statistics indicated that older Americans were being infected and dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate than younger people. Most Boomers didn't hesitate to be vaccinated.

But something else happened in the early days of the pandemic: Some stories disparaging older people started circulating. The most virulent of the bunch suggested to varying degrees that COVID-19 was an "old person's disease" or, worse, that old people who got COVID-19 "deserved to die." These kinds of stories are so repugnant they don't seem worthy of mention -- but mention them I must, because they represent a disturbing, deep-rooted ageism that was intensified by the pandemic.

The National Center on Elder Abuse, in its research brief on ageism, wrote the following:

"The COVID-19 contagion has exposed and animated long simmering age prejudices within society. The pandemic unleashed discourse rife with depictions of older adults as helpless, burdensome, and expendable, provoking public dialogue about the prioritization of health care and allocation of essential resources. In addition to perpetuating negative perceptions of older adults and stoking age-based social divisions, these discussions laid bare persistent structural inequities which disproportionately inhibit older people from accessing appropriate medical treatment and employment opportunities. Among the age-based COVID impacts, older adults have faced increased medical morbidities, workplace discrimination, financial insecurity, and social isolation."

The research brief also documents the consequences of ageism. Among them are these correlations for older adults: 

  • Poorer medical and mental health outcomes
  • Employment discrimination
  • Significant monetary losses
  • Increased social isolation and loneliness
  • Environmental stressors
  • Elder abuse.

It is very likely that all of theses conditions were intensified by the existence of COVID-19.

Another aspect of ageism is equally troubling -- our self-perception of aging. This again is from the research brief issued by the National Center on Elder Abuse:

"Older adults may implicitly and unconsciously consume ageist rhetoric through their lives and internalize stereotypes, resulting in self-directed negativity and eroded self-confidence. These feelings can affect social engagement and the pursuit of employment opportunities. They may also impact elders’ perceptions of aging and their feelings about other members of their age group.

Self-perceptions of ageism can exacerbate stress, impede cognitive function, increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, lead to unhealthy behaviors, contribute to poor health outcomes, and incite brain changes in later life."

I've written extensively about ageism in advertising and the workplace. Never has ageism been so blatant as during the pandemic. The ageism exhibited in the media's reporting of anti-elderly sentiment is just the bubbling up of something we all face in society on a daily basis.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, "Ageism is one of the most prevalent, least recognized, and tacitly normalized forms of stereotyping and prejudice within society. Every person who grows old is likely to be the target of ageism at some point in their life."

Boomers who are pummeled by anti-aging messages need to stay strong and maintain their self-respect. There is nothing "wrong" with growing old -- it's a natural occurrence that happens to all of us. What's wrong is the attitude of those around us and, in some cases, our own self-perception about aging.

It took a pandemic to lay bare the ugly truth about ageism in America and, in fact, globally. All of us need to remain vigilant and fight against ageism if we are to live in a world that rejects discrimination of any kind.

Image: Pixabay.com

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