While ageism certainly exists, I’ve never really liked the use of ageism as an explanation for the lack of progress towards rejuvenation therapies, and this in an era of biotechnology in which all the fundamental puzzle pieces exist and just need to be joined together. What might be seen as ageism is perhaps just one narrow aspect of the broader truth that, beyond immediate friends and family, most people do not focus all that much on concern for others. Some of those others are old, but it isn’t that they are old that produces the lack of concern. It is simply not a common trait to have strong concerns for entire classes of people that one doesn’t interact with all that much. If explaining lack of progress towards treatments for aging in terms of ageism, then one also has to explain why research into age-related diseases such as cancer is so widely supported – and so on for any number of other lines of medical development.
Ageism is a reality in western societies and current views of older people are too often tinged with false beliefs and prejudices. Public authorities often consider older adults to be a burden rather than an integral segment of the population whose members must be supported. Older adults are rarely given a voice and are seldom considered when making decisions. The media has a considerable role in the propagation of ageist stereotypes and negative attitudes towards older adults, particularly in times of crisis when age is not a relevant factor. The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the exclusion of and prejudice against older adults. The current crisis highlights a disturbing public discourse about aging that questions the value of older adults’ lives and disregards their valuable contributions to society.
Even though COVID-19 mortality rates are higher in older adults compared to other age groups, our concern is that age is being conflated with frailty and co-morbidity, which are likely to be the more important factors associated with mortality. Social media highlights older adults who sacrifice their own lives so that ventilators can be used for someone younger. When medical equipment, and hospital capacity becomes scarce, care providers may be faced with the ethical decisions about whose life takes priority and age may become a deciding factor. The United States have formally adopted the Ventilator Allocation Guidelines whereby “age may be considered as a tie-breaking criterion in limited circumstances”. This may lead people to believe that an older person’s life may be less valuable than that of someone younger. What will be the cost to society of the sacrificed lives of older adults?
As concerned advocates and researchers interested in aging, it is our opinion that we should be aware of and try to reduce the ageist views being propagated during COVID-19. Higher mortality rates for any group, including older adults, have devastating consequences. It’s not just the preventable loss of human lives or strain being placed on our healthcare and social systems, older adults are invaluable members of society. They are a source of generational knowledge and wisdom, they contribute to the workforce in increasing numbers, they volunteer and they are key to the strength of our economies and our families. We cannot afford to be careless about these lost lives because of ageist attitudes. We need to consider what we stand to lose if we let ageism influence how we discuss and treat older adults during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.