Covid-19: Statement from the President and Members of the National Executive Committee of the British Society of Gerontology

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A pdf of this statement can be downloaded from the British Society of Gerontology website

The British Society of Gerontology is the learned society representing gerontologists in the United Kingdom. This is a statement from the President and Members of the National Executive Committee made on 20 March 2020 in relation to the unfolding political, policy and media rhetoric and government policy concerning age divisions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We urge the Government to reject the formulation and implementation of policy based on the simple application of chronological age. We also call on government and media organisations to be cautious in their use of language. It is essential that we continue to foster generational and societal cohesion during the course of the pandemic. Only by bringing the generations together in this time of crisis can we ensure that the least damage is done to people living in the UK and other countries.

We affirm the prime goal to control and limit as far as possible the spread of COVID-19. To achieve this goal requires a clear focus on evidence-based practice, using high quality research. We fully support action taken to limit physical interactions, maintain hygiene standards and restrict non-essential travel, and we understand that actions to contain and delay infection will require disruption to our everyday lives.

We urge the Government to ensure rapid COVID-19 testing for our front-line health and social care workforce and the wide range of individuals and organisations who are leading the response to the pandemic. We are also in favour of providing tests for the wider population. This allows people to respond appropriately to the pandemic, ensuring that the right people isolate themselves at the right time. Wider testing is also essential to provide access to robust data that can be used for research and modelling to assist us now in responding to and containing the virus, and in preparing better for future pandemics.

However, for the reasons set out below, we object to any policy which differentiates the population by application of an arbitrary chronological age in restricting people’s rights and freedoms. While people at all ages can be vulnerable to COVID-19, and all can spread the disease, not all people over the age of 70 are vulnerable, nor all those under 70 resilient. Older adults are actively involved in multiple roles, including in paid and unpaid work, civic and voluntary activity in local communities, and providing vital care for parents, partners, adult children and grandchildren. Quarantining the more than 8.5 million people over 70 years of age will deprive society of many people who are productive and active and who can be a key part of the solution by supporting the economy, families and communities. If blanket measures are taken to quarantine older people when others in the population are not quarantined, this places additional burdens on families, communities and businesses, and causes harm to those individuals.

  1. As a population group, it is wrong and overly simplistic to regard people who are aged 70 and above as being vulnerable, a burden, or presenting risks to other people. Many people in this age group are fit, well, and playing an active role in society. Older people participate in paid work, run businesses, volunteer, are active in civil society and the cultural life of communities, and take care of family members including parents, spouses/partners, adult children (especially those living with disabilities), and grandchildren. There are currently more than 360,000 people over 70 in paid work, including one in seven men between 70 and 75 and one in sixteen women (see Table 1). Almost one million people over the age of 70 provide unpaid care, including one in seven women in their 70s. One in five people aged between 70 and 85, over 1.5 million people, volunteer in their communities. People in good health are especially likely to volunteer at older ages with almost a third of those in their early 70s doing so. Older adults should not be excluded but should be seen as a vital and necessary part of economic and community life.

2. Serious health risks particularly identified for coronavirus are prevalent across the population. Not only do high risks exist across age groups, but also many people in older age groups have no underlying health conditions. As indicated in Table 2, almost half of people in their early 60s have one of a range of health conditions (hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, asthma or cancer). Almost one in five people in their 60s have two or more of these conditions.  More than 30% of people in their 70s have none.

  1. It may be correct that age itself on average is presenting a risk for coronavirus even without other health conditions. However, this will not be the case for all individuals, amongst whom biological age and immune responses vary greatly. More importantly, this will on average be a gradually increasing risk with any specific age being an arbitrary point on this line. Choosing an arbitrary age, such as 70, presents the age risk as binary. This poses dangers for people below as well as above the age threshold. People below the age threshold will not be charged with the same level of responsibility for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and may falsely believe that they are not at high risk of serious illness or death. Government messaging that people aged 70 and over are vulnerable due to their age runs the risk that other groups may not take seriously messages about the need to maintain physical distance from others and to self-isolate. Messaging about how to avoid catching and spreading coronavirus should apply to everyone irrespective of age.
  1. If people are to be motivated to change their behaviour, they need to accept that they are personally at risk (perhaps due to an underlying health condition or family circumstances). Sweeping age-related discrimination is unlikely to achieve the desired behaviour change. People who feel fit, strong and healthy will feel that the message does not apply to them and will characterise themselves as belonging to a group apart. The age-based messaging also risks pitting young against old. It may make older people feel resistant to what they are being told, which they do not see as applying to their situation. Media, government and public health professionals should strive to use language that resonates, rather than obfuscates, how people identify in their everyday lives.
  1. People of all ages, when staying at home or trying to distance themselves physically from others, remain members of families, friendship networks and communities. All measures should be implemented with an awareness of people’s need for social support and solidarity. It is clear that physical distancing needs to happen across the whole population at once, and sensible rules for maintaining mental and physical health during this period need to be employed. We cannot implement a policy that will severely weaken the physical and mental health of some age groups through isolation while others are more protected. Given the centrality of both mental and physical well-being, there is a need for clear guidance on what people can do to maintain and improve their physical and mental health while keeping physically apart from others. This will only be effective if the message from Government is not divisive around age.
  1. Research points to the fundamental importance of social connections for personal well-being and physical and mental health. The COVID-19 crisis has prompted considerable discussion of loneliness and social isolation amongst older people suggesting, quite wrongly, that these are vulnerable states that apply to older people alone. Increasingly, media discourse is also promoting the view that all older people are lonely and socially isolated. Contrary to this discourse, the evidence shows that loneliness and social isolation affect people of all ages. Recent studies suggest that young adults may be at greater risk of loneliness than older adults, with one in ten people aged 16-24 years being often lonely, compared to three per cent of people aged 65 and over (see Table 3). We also know that people can be lonely or socially isolated even when living with others. Loneliness and social isolation are already intractable social issues that warrant thought and action about connectedness and support across all age groups and communities. Evidence shows that being seen to be part of community life can act as a buffer against feelings of isolation, give people a sense of meaning in life, and protect against depression. Voluntary and community organisations, charities and statutory organisations should receive financial and structural support during this time to continue their longstanding work on tackling isolation and loneliness regardless of age. They should also be supported and encouraged to develop new strategies to improve the number and quality of people’s social connections during the current time. This should include using both old and new communication technologies, ranging from radio and TV to the internet and digital devices, to facilitate social connections between people of all ages. We should be thinking of this period as an opportunity to bring people and generations together, especially by helping to bridge digital divides across society where these exist.
  1. Living alone is a separate issue that has not been adequately considered or addressed. While this is an issue that disproportionately affects people aged 75 and over, especially older women, it affects all age groups and generations. About a third of men aged 80 and over are single, divorced or widowed, but this is the case for 70 per cent of women in this age group (see Table 4). There is an implicit assumption in much discussion about COVID-19 that people will have co-resident family members to look after them, to recognise that they are ill, to keep them hydrated, to help them if they are unable to get back to bed after going to the toilet, to try to encourage some nutrition or to call an ambulance. Co-resident family members can also advocate for hospitalisation or hospital care if needed. If people live alone and no-one is permitted to see them, who will do this? With a simple message to older people who live alone that they must cut themselves off from others, we are also conveying the message that we expect them to become ill without care and even die. Some countries have constructed and converted isolation centres to enable people with coronavirus to move to a place where they can be cared for appropriately, thus isolating them from families and friends but also offering access to care. There is an urgent need for clear policies aimed at supporting people who live alone of all ages. Equally, we need policies that can provide testing, intermediate care facilities (potentially requisitioning hotels, student accommodation, or office buildings), and tangible support for people who live alone. 
  1. As well as health and social care workers, family and friends who will need to provide care to people who become unwell form the front line of society’s response to the pandemic and will need to be acknowledged and treated as such. For many people with families who they love and with whom they live or who live within close proximity, it is anathema to leave them to be severely ill, self-care in that state, and potentially die alone. Overwhelmingly, family members will provide hands-on care for one another. They will ignore entreaties to physically distance as they tend to their children, their spouses/partners and their parents and grandparents, knowingly taking risks as they do so. Families will do this for the loved ones they live with, and those they do not live with. To expect otherwise is to ignore the interconnectedness of families and the behaviour of people. Here, rather than tell families to ignore each other, we need to offer rapid testing, advice and supplies (masks where useful for intimate care, eye protection, gowns, gloves, sanitisers, soap). We should also be providing financial support for people faced with additional costs associated with managing daily life when family members have coronavirus, such as keeping the washing machine running and purchasing cleaning and hygiene products. We need to ask people to isolate as connected clusters rather than keeping loved ones apart. We need to work with human behaviour and not against it.
  1. Special thought should be given to how people might connect with loved ones who live in care settings. Denying people the chance to see their friends and relatives where the physical and mental wellbeing of both depends on that contact, and where other forms of contact may well not be facilitated, is a most drastic curtailment of human rights and needs. Testing becomes crucial, to know who has had the virus, who may be immune, and who may be able to visit in a safe way without danger. Policy and practice should seek innovative ways for people to visit their loved ones virtually, or across physical or spatial barriers. We need to have a much more nuanced and evolving discussion of this particular challenge.
  1. Some common sense is also needed about so-called “self-isolation”. Socially isolating in a large house with a garden, good internet connection and a steady income is a completely different experience to socially isolating in a tiny flat, with no internet and under financial stress. Online food and other deliveries, which feature as a key policy response to coronavirus, are not an option for a large number of people, do not apply at all in many rural areas, and are already difficult to obtain as companies struggle to meet surging demand. We need to find a way to allow people to walk or cycle to local shops, to take exercise (for themselves and their pets), and to wave at one another and make social connections while maintaining a safe distance and observing hygiene requirements, without being singled out or intimidated. We need to think about sustainable policies, perhaps staggering who can go out for what purpose and when, how many people can be at particular places at a particular point in time, and national and reliable delivery of hand sanitisers to food shops and pharmacies on entry and exit. Maintaining physical and, especially, mental health whilst keeping people safe and well is a priority. Exercise, personal mobility and human contact are key to healthy ageing and need to be promoted long beyond the current pandemic.
  1. A key message from research on social aspects of ageing is that policy and practice should be attuned to the diversity of older people in countries like the UK. The older population is far from homogenous and differs substantially according to such characteristics as age, gender, ethnicity/race, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, marital status, household composition, place of residence and care roles. Given the diversity of older people, and the considerable social and spatial inequalities that characterise later life, broad-brush policy approaches based solely on chronological age are likely to disproportionately disadvantage some groups. They may also ignore the specific needs of marginalised groups of older people, including those who have particular health conditions, live in long-term care settings, are homeless, or are imprisoned. Research on ageing has made considerable progress in recent years in drawing attention to the heterogeneity of older people. It would be a highly retrograde step if this progress was undone by policy measures that reinforce the view that all people over a certain age share a particular set of characteristics.
  1. As well as preparing policies for living through this pandemic, we need to think about death, and the potential for death rates not witnessed for generations in the UK.  We need sensible, realistic and emotionally supportive frameworks for attending funerals, and for coping with individual and collective grief. Such frameworks are needed regardless of the age of people coming to terms with loss.

In this unprecedented period, we call for urgent and ongoing data collection and rigorous analysis of social and economic inequalities, and of the impact of inequalities through this crisis on the living conditions of people, their mental and physical health, and mortality. We call for urgent policy action to redress these inequalities. COVID-19 is bringing into stark vision the impact of many years of politically motivated austerity policies that have substantially eroded health and social care services and community and voluntary sector support. The crisis demands an urgent reversal of these policies and calls for future investment in social as well as health care. In particular, we call for the social and domiciliary care workforce to be fairly treated. We call for them to be protected as front-line workers against this epidemic. We call for their high levels of skill to be recognised not only in the form of words, but also in terms of their pay, job security and working conditions.

If physical distancing policies are to succeed, they need to take account of who people are, how they perceive themselves, how they behave, and their emotional needs. Such policies will be difficult to police, and enforceable sanctions are hard to imagine. We need to carry the hearts and minds of the nation with us in the months ahead if we are to ensure the least physical interaction and least spread of the disease. The COVID-19 response emphasises more strongly than ever before the need for co-ordinated ageing policy that cuts across government departments.

We note that policies identifying an arbitrary chronological age for restrictions of human liberties are out of line with approaches in other jurisdictions, including Scotland and Ireland.  People of all ages are privileged with the same rights and policies need to be applied at population level. Ageism – the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age – has detrimental consequences for societies and individuals. We reject firmly the ageist and stereotypical assumptions that underlie public and policy pronouncements that rely solely on the application of chronological age.

We close by declaring our strong support and admiration for clinicians making hard decisions, including, in due course, potentially about rationing life-saving resources. In anticipation of these, we stress that it is not possible for clinicians to make moral judgments about the value of human life based on age. Faced by the pressures of a pandemic, clinicians will in all likelihood know next to nothing about the lives of the people they are being asked to treat and cannot weigh one life against another. All clinical decisions for access to testing and treatment as they unfold should be made on clinical need; using age alone as a criterion for decision making is fundamentally wrong.

Signed, 20 March 2020

Professor Thomas Scharf
President of the British Society of Gerontology
Newcastle University

And Members of the National Executive Committee of the British Society of Gerontology:
Professor Carol Holland, Professor in Ageing, Lancaster University
Professor Andrew Newman, Professor of Cultural Gerontology, University of Newcastle
Professor Debora Price, Professor of Social Gerontology, University of Manchester
Dr Tine Buffel, University of Manchester
Dr Gemma Carney, Queen’s University Belfast
Dr Gary Christopher, University of the West of England
Dr Paula Devine, Queen’s University Belfast
Dr Martin Hyde, Swansea University
Dr Matthew Lariviere, University of Sheffield
Dr Hannah Marston, Open University
Dr Wendy Martin, Brunel University
Dr Charles Musselwhite, Swansea University
Dr Tushna Vandravela, Kingston University

And endorsed by the following Members of the British Society of Gerontology as at 16th April 2020:

Sheila Mackintosh, University of the West of England
Dr. Joanna Cross, Freelance Consultant, Bristol
Dr Bram Vanhoutte, Derby Research Fellow, University of Liverpool
Emeritus Professor Bob Woods, Bangor University
Professor Holly Nelson-Becker, Social Work Division Lead, Brunel University London
Robin Webster, Irish Centre for Social Gerontology , NUIGalway
Dr Carol Maddock, Swansea University
Professor Andrew King, University of Surrey
Dr John Woolham, King’s College London
Dr Sue Westwood, University of York
Ruth Winden, Director, Older Yet Bolder
Bridget Penhale, University of East Anglia, Norwich
Dr Melanie Chalder, University of Bristol
Dr Katharine Orellana, King’s College London
Dr Bethany Simmonds, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, The University of Portsmouth
Dr Chad Witcher, Senior Lecturer, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science,                      University of Portsmouth
Dr Deborah Morgan, Senior Research Officer, Swansea University
Dr Robin A Hadley, Associate Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University
Prof Rose Gilroy, Newcastle University
Dr Anna Wanka, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main
Dr Lorna Warren, Senior Lecturer, University of Sheffield
Professor Julia Twigg, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy and Sociology, University of             Kent, Canterbury
Dr Jenny Inker, Assistant Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University
Dr Bernadette Bartlam, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Keele University
Dr Suzanne Moffatt, Reader in Social Gerontology, Newcastle University
Professor Malcolm Johnson, University of Bath
Dr Michele Board Principal Academic Nursing Older People, Bournemouth University
Dr Lucy Smout Szablewska, Durham University/independent researcher
Prof Karen West, University of Bristol
Dr Bruce Davenport, Research Associate, Newcastle University
Dr Malcolm J Fisk, De Montfort University
Deborah Gale, Intergen Design Leader, Encore Fellows UK & The Age of No Retirement
Dr. Hans-Joachim von Kondratowitz, Senior Advisor German Centre of Gerontology,                Berlin
Professor Vanessa Burholt, Professor of Gerontology, Centre for Innovative Ageing,                  Swansea University and Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of                      Auckland
Emeritus Professor Peter G. Coleman, University of Southampton
Professor Judith Phillips, Professor Judith Phillips, Professor of Gerontology, University            of Stirling and UKRI Research Director, Healthy Ageing Challenge
Dr. Snorri Bjorn Rafnsson, Associate Professor of Ageing and Dementia, Institute for
        Ageing and Memory (IAM), School of Biomedical Sciences, University of
        West London
Dr Ann Leahy, Irish Research Council, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Maynooth University
Dr Marianne Markowski, Member of the Centre for Chronic Illness and Ageing,                             University of Greenwich

Intersectionality and the Life Course

Daniel Holman and Alan Walker

It is axiomatic that the life course perspective is fundamental to understanding unequal ageing. People move through various life stages as they age, experiencing different social roles and relationships with others, who are each doing the same. Social and cultural processes and policy encounters provide the context for these experiences, shaping what is possible, and the attendant life chances. Life course researchers have shown that ageing is unequal with respect to a number of key axes of dis/advantage such as social class, gender, and ethnicity – but what about the ways in which these axes of dis/advantage overlap and interact with each other? This is the topic of a new paper we have published in the European Journal of Ageing.

Intersectionality has seen an explosion of interest, especially in the last 5-10 years. It has two essential ingredients. The first is social heterogeneity, or in other words, population diversity. Each of us have multiple characteristics – a gender, an age, an ethnicity, a socioeconomic position, and so on – which together shape (though of course do not determine) who we are and our position in society. The second ingredient is social discrimination – sexism, ageism, racism, classism, and so on – which people are subject to in different ways depending on their own intersectional identity. As noted by various scholars, Covid-19 provides a glaring example of the need to take an intersectional perspective given the socioeconomic, ethnic and age-based inequalities that have been highlighted by and have emerged during the pandemic. Despite numerous calls for intersectional research on Covid-19, including in the BMJ, we so far know virtually nothing about how these factors might be overlapping and interacting with each other to shape pandemic-related outcomes.

This 3-minute explainer video we produced on the topic of intersectionality and health offers a general overview:

[Embed explainer video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwqnC1fy_zc]

Life course and intersectionality perspectives each comprise a number of key concepts that can be synthesised to provide a richer, fuller account of unequal ageing. The life course has proved an incredibly rich framework for gerontology and focuses on social roles, life stages, transitions, age/cohort differences, cumulative dis/advantage and trajectories, whilst intersectionality centres intersectional subgroups, discrimination, categorisation and individual hetereogeneity. Each set of concepts has much to gain by synthesising the other; the opportunities for mutual enrichment are substantial. In the table below, which presents a simplified version of that in the paper, we have summarised five key areas of synergy with example applications:

Area of synergyExample applications
People change intersectional subgroups over the life cycle and could therefore be said to follow an ‘intersectional trajectory’.Examine how people navigate role transitions and intersectional patterning in this.Analyse ethnicity by gender outcomes depending on time spent in certain SEPs (duration) at what age (timing/critical periods), how the order of SEP statuses might influence health (sequential effects), or how certain SEP transitions might constitute a big life change (turning points).High prestige careers are mainly only accessible for Black men if they are in stable relationships with a maximum of one child (Aisenbrey and Fasang, 2018)Retirement might have little meaning among low income African Americans (Dressel et al., 1997).
People employ agency to resist discrimination and shape their own identities across the life cycle, within given constraints.Women disadvantaged according to SEP and ethnicity were less able to mitigate the damaging effects of increases to the women’s state pension (Holman et al. (2018).Walker and Naegele (1999) showed the variations in political participation between different groups of older people, based on SEP, in different EU countries.
Intersectional patterning and its significance for unequal ageing varies by historical time and spatial context.Examine time/place differences in intersectional diversity.Conduct MAIHDA analysis to examine within and between intersectional variation in different historical times and spatial locations.Examine the ageing of different cohorts of disabled people and people with intellectual disabilities.Compare relevance of area deprivation versus individual SEP in explaining health inequalities, and how this varies by age, gender and other axes of inequality.Conduct intersectional analyses on a local or regional scale to generate place-specific evidence.Informal care role of older adults may change in neighbourhoods with high unemployment (Dressel et al 1997).
People are affected by multiple forms of discrimination over the life cycle and according to historical time and spatial context.Analyse inequalities in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy according to age, cohort, gender, race and ethnicity.Examine differences in reported interpersonal discrimination across time/place.Examine how individuals experience multiple forms of discrimination across different contexts e.g. ageism in one policy and sexism in another.Policy contexts can be used to interpret individual outcomes or directly linked to micro data; cross-national panel data can be used for comparative research.Bécares and Zhang (2018) found that accumulated interpersonal discrimination has a negative impact on the mental health of older ethnic minority women.Dressel and Barnhill (1994) found that for African American grandmothers age was not seen as a key social identity given lifelong poverty, racism and sexism.
Ageism, sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination and their interconnections (the ‘matrix of domination’) vary by historical time and spatial context.Policy analysis of how policies discriminate based on both single and multiple axes of inequality at a time e.g. ageism and stereotypes of older men vs. women.The transformation from ‘worn out’ older workers of the early twentieth century to the ‘productive ageing’ of the early twenty-first century (Macnicol, 2006).Shifts in the visual stereotypes of older women over time (Warren, 2018).The cultural turn in ageist stereotypes from physical limitations to cosmetic appearance, with a particularly severe impact on older women (Twigg, 2013).

What does this mean in practice, and why is it important? The core of our argument can be distilled into the following claim: the life course perspective needs to acknowledge the way in which axes of inequality – both at the level of population subgroups and systems of social discrimination – overlap and interact with each other; intersectionality needs to acknowledge the dynamic, reciprocal and temporal nature of social categories and attendant discrimination. A serious attempt to engage with an intersectional life course perspective would help to ensure that the most vulnerable do not fall down through the cracks, to use Kimberlé Crenshaw’s terminology. It would generate knowledge on whether we should aim for social policies which aim to tackle multiple forms of discrimination simultaneously, and at which ‘turning points’ in the life course this is most likely to be effective. It might also suggest whether, and how, interventions or policies can be targeted at different intersectional subgroups, the identity-based factors associated with these subgroups that could help with targeting and tailoring interventions and policies, and the structural constraints that might inhibit the success of such interventions.

In sum, there is a strong case for moving towards the integration of intersectional and life course perspectives, which holds exciting opportunities to bring new insights to unequal ageing and how to tackle it. Recent events have made this task more pressing than ever.

The full article on this which this blog is based can be found here. The project website this paper emerged on can be found here.

Dan Holman is based in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield and is a Faculty Research Fellow for the Healthy Lifespan Institute.

Alan Walker is based in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield and is Professor of Social Policy and Social Gerontology and Co-director of the Healthy Lifespan Institute.