We want a better society after lock-down, where older people feel safe

Many people want a ‘new normal’ after lockdown ends - one where older people won’t be airbrushed out of the health system; where they are not considered ‘disposable’ and where ageism is tackled honestly.

Living through the Covid-19 lockdown has made many people redefine their values. ‘I never want to hear from celebrities again’, said someone on my social media. ‘I only want the red carpet rolled out for nurses and doctors and care workers.’ ‘I don’t want to go back to normal’, said another. ‘I want it to be better than that.’

A good number of people want to revert to a lifestyle of Ghandi-like simplicity; others want to find the meaning of life (interestingly, millions more people have tuned into online services than normally go to church); and others want the streams of kindness and giving to continue.

One issue many want to see addressed is the ageism that affects the lives of so many older people, including the lack of help they have received during the crisis. Government Minister Richard Buckland has admitted that when the outbreak was at its most ferocious the government chose to protect the NHS over care homes because there was not enough coronavirus testing capacity, despite acknowledging that residents were vulnerable and ‘sheltered’. More than 23,000 patients were discharged into care homes without testing, a policy blamed for the death of nearly 15,000 elderly and vulnerable residents. Deaths from care homes were not included in the daily statistics at first, and Age UK director Caroline Abrahams said that ‘older people were being airbrushed out, like they didn’t matter’.

‘This happens because few people care what happens to the elderly’, wrote John Worsley, pastor of Kew Baptist Church, quoting recent research by Kent University showing that ageism is rife in Britain.

Ageism was first described in 1968 by psychologist Rob Butler, who predicted it would become nastier when resources are scarce. Older people will be expected to make economic sacrifices for the younger, though it could also include giving up their lives.

This thought was behind the statement of a caller to a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? The questioner asked whether trying to save the lives of the elderly was ‘really worth it, when it will cripple the younger generation’s lives for decades?’ 

Programme panellists were quick to say there was no ‘trade-off’ to consider, and that the human right to life is most important. Other callers backed the panellists, with one stating,

‘The issue is, should we sacrifice our elderly and vulnerable to save the young from the economic effects of Covid-19? And put that way, it’s a heartless and immoral question.’ 

The Christian Institute was concerned enough to issue a statement.

There should be no ageism in our churches, says John Worsley: ‘The elderly are made in God’s image. They still comprise the body of Christ. And honestly, they are… some of the most beautiful parts of that body.’ He describes telephoning an elderly church member who told him that after breakfast each morning she and her husband pray for him and everyone on the church list.

In the book What’s Age Got to Do With It? are stories of older people, some in their 90s, who are living with purpose as God intended. They include 99-year-old David, sending a monthly prayer letter to supporters for his care home in Wales; 87-year-old Marilyn, a missionary to Pakistan; and 84-year-old Doreen with failing eyesight, who would sit in a bus shelter near her sea-side home and ask anyone coming in to read to her the Christian tract she had been given, that she happened to have in her handbag.

The Guardian’s John Harris notes that,

‘the insecurities of twenty-first century life for younger people have fostered the idea that if older people have been lucky enough to buy their home and receive half-decent pensions, that somehow characterises them as the recipients of unjust luxury’.

These beliefs stoke the inter-generational fairness debate that bubbles beneath the surface.

Predictions are that the economy will be exceptionally tough after the crisis is over. We will get through it together, better, if we show kindness and generosity and see our older generation not as pirates having made off with the country’s treasure, but as individuals of great value to our culture, and to God.  

Louise Morse

Louise is author of several books on old age, a cognitive behavioural therapist, a speaker and social commentator, and media and external relations manager with a Christian charity supporting the elderly, the Pilgrims’ Friend Society.

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