The way in which older age is understood and discussed seemed to turn on a dime during these awful weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. The crisis unmasked a callousness in the attitudes and behaviours of some to the health of those more at risk in relation to the virus (see the hashtag #BoomerRemover); it raised the issue of blanket denials of treatment on age grounds in potentially overwhelmed health systems (see Gullette, 2020), and it has witnessed the dreadful spectacle of politicians and journalists talking about older lives as expendable for the good of economies (see link).
Policy responses often included a focus on people aged 70 and over for special social distancing measures. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly represents major health risks for older people, but this response contributed to a simplified view of older lives in public discourse – as homogeneous, vulnerable, isolated units readily cut off from families, friends and activities, their contributions to society expendable, the needs of some to support (and the needs of those who care for them) easily glossed over. While recognising the need for action to contain and delay infection, there has been a balanced response to this from the British Society of Gerontology arguing that we need to foster generational and societal cohesion during the pandemic (see link).
It is interesting that voices from disabled people have also come through (on twitter at any rate) in these weeks highlighting how social distancing and isolation is their experience in the long term. Conversations about older people and disabled or people with chronic conditions have in many ways become linked (see link 1, link 2, link 3; see also Human Rights Watch, 2020).
Obviously, these are extraordinary times. It is as if every ancient stereotype and (as we thought) every debunked myth about what it is to age was suddenly centre stage in informing policies and discussions. It is as if the old disengagement theory from the 1950s had been whipped out from a dusty corner to obscure notions of ‘active’ or ‘successful’ ageing, leaving only a dangerously reductionist perception of the so called ‘fourth age’ in their place. It is as if Laslett’s, ( 1996:3-5,194) original characterisation of the ‘fourth age’ (an ‘era of final dependence, decrepitude and death’) is the one that has been the authentic face of ageing, the face (like that of Dorian Gray) that has been waiting in the attic all along.
The reaction to the pandemic has unleashed a ‘latent ageism’ according to Professor Thomas Scharf (Eastman, 2020). Has it also shown that the much valorised ‘active’ ageing (and cognate concepts) that inform public policies and public discourse alike have become quite brittle? Does it vindicate views from within critical gerontology that policies promoting ‘active ageing’ have been shaped by economic imperatives to save money in anticipation of population ageing (see Lloyd, 2012:8-9)? Perhaps these concepts have evolved to represent rather flimsy constructs at this stage, easily cast off if another narrative serves overarching purposes more expeditiously.
By the time the world has come through this crisis who knows what further fault-lines in our communities will have been revealed. But, at some stage, the crisis should lead to fundamental considerations about the theories of ageing that inform public perceptions and public policies.
The current situation brings to mind that much quoted observation that, as a field, gerontology is ‘data-rich but theory-poor’ (Birren and Bengtson, 1988: ix). The crisis raises questions about how well our traditionally polarised theories and discourses of ageing serve us, based as they often are around an axis of absence or presence of ill-health or impairment. On the one hand, we promote the (well-intended) idea that actions of individuals can prevent impairment and disability in older age if people maintain activity levels typical of midlife; then we career in the opposite direction – toward the view that impairment and disability are the same thing as ageing and, therefore, ‘normal’, individual issues, to be accepted without complaint by people with fewer rights than others.
Instead, I’d suggest that scholars must find ways of informing society more broadly about what it is to age based on empirical work that foregrounds the experience not just of younger-older (or non-impaired) people but also of those older people who are going about their lives with chronic illness, impairment or disability, imbuing those lives with as much meaning and value as possible on a daily basis.
One avenue for exploration is suggested by the linkages being made between different groups who are at particular risk around COVID-19 – older people, disabled people and those with chronic or underlying conditions. This suggests the possibility for greater linkages to theories and approaches that traverse the lifespan, aiming to learn from disabled people of all ages who assert their worth and value every day in the face of social relationships, physical environments and socio-political structures that are often disabling and discrediting.
It may be time for more acknowledgement within approaches to ageing that a ‘preference for able-bodiedness’ is a powerful overarching societal ideology (Siebers, 2008:7). Is it not time for greater acknowledgement that older people and disabled people can both be devalued by ableism (as well as ageism) and to reject ableism where it has evolved within conventional approaches to ageing? There may also be room for more collective responses based on exploration of how our culture marginalises and fails to value both older people and disabled people in similar ways (see Gibbons, 2016).
The desire to maintain health and functioning for as long as possible and the appropriateness of research and practice that supports this is obvious (for individuals and for societies). But what is less obvious is that we also need to develop ideas about the potential to live lives of connection, value and meaning with impairment in later life. In short, we need better ways to understand what it is to experience disability in later life or to age with long-term disability and to make those understandings more mainstream. After all, the value of a future that includes disability tends to go unrecognised, as does the fact that illness and disability are part of what makes us human (Kafer, 2013:3-4). It would be good if one outcome of the current crisis was that we started to learn from this shared (frequently denied) aspect of our humanity across generations, which is being brought home to us so starkly at present.
Dr Ann Leahy, Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dept of Sociology, Maynooth University
Birren, J.E. and Bengtson, V.L. (1988) Emergent theories of aging, New York, NY:Springer.
Eastman, M.H. (2020) ‘LLARN Later Life Audio Radio Network ‘, A ‘Plague on all our Houses’: Later Life and COID19 with Mervyn Eastman, Tom Scharf and Gerry Foley [podcast], 28 March 2020, available: [accessed 30 March 2020]
Gibbons, H.M. (2016) ‘Compulsory Youthfulness: Intersections of Ableism and Ageism in “Successful Aging” Discourses’, Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, 12(2&3).
Gullette, M.M. (2020) ‘Ageist ‘Triage’ is a Crime Against Humanity’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 21 March 2020, available: https://lareviewofbooks.org/short-takes/ageist-triage-covid-19/ [accessed 30 March 2020].
Human Rights Watch (2020) Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response, available: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/19/human-rights-dimensions-covid-19-response#_Toc35446581 [accessed 4 April 2020].
Kafer, A. (2013) Feminist, queer, crip, Bloomington:Indiana University Press.
Laslett, P. (1989/1996) A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age,2nd ed., Basingstoke:Palgrave Macmillan.
Lloyd, L. (2012) Health and care in ageing societies: A new international approach, Bristol:Policy Press. Siebers, T. (2008) Disability Theory