By Guest Author 15/04/2020 4


Professor Christine Stephens

I was somewhat alarmed to find myself, as a 70-year-old, suddenly categorised as a member of a particularly vulnerable group. 

This is a group of people based only on the number of years that they have lived who have been singled out as needing to be extra careful and isolated earlier than others during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, this is for the protection of our health and signals society’s concern and protection of members of the population who are clearly more at risk.

As we age, we are more likely to suffer the underlying health issues which also make people more vulnerable to this virus. Unfortunately, using such a crude indicator of vulnerability as age alone has its downside. Categorising people in this way feeds into prejudice against older people and a deficit view of ageing that is already circulating in our society. Such ageist attitudes depict people in terms of their age alone and obscure the huge diversity that actually exists among older people.

For a start, people continue to develop and change between 70 and 100. Grouping all people over 70 is like treating those from ages 10 to 40 as one homogenous group. In addition, people bring their diverse lifelong backgrounds into older age where physiological, social, and health differences actually widen. Although some are vulnerable, many older people are healthy and can survive disease. Using generalisations, which target a very broad group, can be damaging to that group.

In the case of the current pandemic, we can see how ageism becomes the basis of spurious oppositions, the economy versus the lives of older people, or the future of the young versus the health of the old, that threaten all older people’s position in society.

One argument commonly heard today is that under current lockdown measures, the economy is being sacrificed for the sake of old people. This argument immediately positions all older people as a drain on the economy and their care seen as a danger to current livelihoods and the future wellbeing of society.  There are several problems with these sorts of arguments.

First, there is a moral issue. Fortunately, our leaders from every political party and public health officials recognise the moral stance against such a position. The health of all people in our society is important and any slide toward eugenic arguments about the dispensability of older people has gained little traction.

Secondly, such arguments fail to recognise that the measures currently undertaken are for the health of all people. Vulnerable people are like the canary in the coal mine, indicating that danger to population health is present, but left to spread, the health of many is threatened, as seen in other countries around the world.

Third, pitting the economy against older people fails to recognise that people are the economy, and joining together to protect everybody now makes us stronger, morally and economically, as a society. Evidence for this comes from the United States in the 1918 flu pandemic. Colin Peacock reported on Mediawatch last Sunday on two US economists and an MIT professor who found that US cities which used the strongest lockdown measures in the flu pandemic of 1918 not only saved more lives, but, livelihoods grew faster after the pandemic was over.

Another similar argument along these lines, emphasises a false intergenerational divide: Incurring debt now to save lives endangers the economic future of young people. Again, such arguments fail to recognise that societies are about all people, and that working together now to preserve the health of vulnerable people and the livelihoods that are immediately threatened under lockdown circumstances will ensure the strength of our future society.

To further counteract the opinions that threaten to reinforce an intergenerational divide we must recognise the contributions that older people make to society.  Depicting all people over 70 as a burden to younger generations, completely fails to recognise that many older people continue to support their children emotionally, physically, or economically. Many are currently employed, some in essential services. Many other older people are engaged in volunteer services.  A high proportion of older people are engaged in essential care giving, for their elderly parents, their spouses, or their grandchildren. At present my relatives, both over 70, are caring for their grandchildren, whose parents are both health care workers. Our current research projects include older caregivers who are also in paid employment. We will be back to them soon to see how the pandemic has further complicated their difficult lives. All of this work is often unacknowledged but is worth millions of dollars to the economy.

This pandemic has highlighted one of the most valuable aspects of having people around who have lived for a long time. If we listen carefully or provide more opportunities for older people to speak, we can hear stories of experience and the wisdom derived from that experience. Rather than being terrified by the implications of a major change in the way we live, older people can take a more optimistic view (as they did in the Christchurch earthquakes). They’ve seen this before and, although life is turned upside down, in the end, many aspects of life do not change. Talk of long-lasting doom does not fit with the experiences of my parents who survived the polio epidemic, diphtheria, and World War II, and lived to enjoy a period a great economic growth and social care in New Zealand. It is good for young people to hear these stories in times of heightened anxiety and fear for the future.

Professor Christine Stephens co-leads the cross-disciplinary Health and Ageing Research Team in the School of Psychology at Massey University where she is a Professor of Social Science Research. The focus of the team’s activity is a longitudinal study of quality of life in ageing (Health, Work and Retirement study) which has conducted bi-annual surveys of a population sample of older people for 10 years.  The research also includes in-depth qualitative studies on topics such as informal caregiving, the experience of cancer, and housing needs.


4 Responses to “Remember the value of our older community members”

  • Thank you for writing this. I am 72 and an Emeritus Professor (of Education) at the University of Waikato. Since retirement I have continued to write, publish, examine thesis and review manuscript ts for journals and publishers. I spend much of my time volunteering as a musician/ interactive music group facilitator for people with dementia and their carers – I run a group for a community organisation and another in a secure residential dementia unit. The former group is about to resume on Zoom. During lockdown, My husband and I walk daily, I continue Pilates classes on Zoom and spend a lot of time communicating with friends and family around the world via social media and phone. Suddenly being groups with the 90 year olds makes me angry. I am not a ‘poor old dear.’ How do we fight back?

  • The unavoidable reality is that this illness particularly affects the elderly. Thats not age-ism, discrimination or prejudice. Its reality.

    Over 70’s are demonstrably a costly component of our society. A significant chunk of that cost is healthcare. It s prudent and rational to treat this group as vulnerable during a pandemic that has a particular appitite for older people.

    In a situation where we had much more time, information, capability and funding we might have been able to individualise responses to suit the reality of different personal strengths and situations. With COVID-19, we have not had that luxury. The fact is that there are is a bell curve of risk. Some are at the left-hand side of the curve but the curve for people over 70 is skewed to the right. Short of the resources I describe at the start of the paragraph, the generalised response is the only rational one.

  • Ashton, she’s not arguing against the measure, but the ageism that it allows to creep out. So, we must guard against those attitudes, not disband the measures in place.

  • Hi Tracey – I disagree. The first three paragraphs clearly set out a position that it is damaging and discriminatory to classify people by age. “This is a group of people based only on the number of years that they have lived who have been singled out…”

    Public health by its very nature is a game of generalisation. We generalise in health based on race, lifestyle, gender employment and other factors. All attract criticism both warranted and unwarranted, but that doesn’t make the classification invalid or dangerous.

    We certainly generalise with the elderly in positive ways, not the least being by paying them a benefit whose entire criteria is whether you were born 23,725 days ago. This payment makes it possible (and arguably, a moral requirement in our social contract) for superannuants to spend time caring for grandchildren or volunteering in other socially valuable activities as described in the article.

    I totally agree that it is not acceptable to malign people on the basis of their age (amongst other spurious criteria) and it is indefensible to make an individual health decision based solely on such a broad measure as age. But age will always be a consideration in this decisionmaking and in the management of public health events.

    Thanks for prodding me to think more on the subject!