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The coronavirus epidemic shows why it’s so important to get it right when we talk about ageing

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, articles that celebrate a ‘cull’ of the elderly remind us to think more carefully about our attitudes towards ageing.

Our Chief Executive, Dr Anna Dixon, takes a look at some of the language used with regards to older people and the negative effects ageism can have.

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 epidemic, it was common to see social media commenters reassuring one another not to worry – that the disease was fatal ‘only’ to older people or those with underlying health conditions. Last week, a Telegraph journalist argued that the virus might benefit the economy by ‘culling’ the elderly. Rightly, these attitudes have been roundly condemned. There have also been floods of concern for older people who are self-isolating. But even these reactions reveal a more subtle, paternalistic view of older people. They are portrayed as a homogeneous group to be managed or mollycoddled rather than a group of diverse and active citizens with equal rights to people of other ages. This raises important questions about how we think, feel, and talk about age as a society.

Our new report on attitudes to age illustrates how widespread – and how pernicious – negative stereotypes are. Our attitudes to later life, it shows, are far more negative than positive – with damaging stereotypes rife in the media, in workplaces, and in health and social care settings. Older people are seen variously as incompetent, hostile, and a burden on society – and our ageing population is portrayed as a disastrous ‘demographic timebomb.’ Even when older people aren’t demonised, they are often talked down to – patronisingly viewed as nice, but incompetent.

Ten years on from the passing of the Equality Act, this report shows that as a society, while we’ve made huge strides in challenging prejudice and discrimination, we have utterly failed to take seriously the insidious impact of ageism. You only need to look at a rack of birthday cards poking fun at memory loss and incontinence to see that ageism is still seen as a bad joke, at worst – and, at best, very funny.

When it comes to coronavirus, the impact of language and attitudes that lump everyone over a certain age into a category labelled ‘vulnerable’ could do much more harm than good.

But we know that ageism has profound consequences, both for the way we see ourselves and for the way we are treated by others. Our previous research has found that a third of over-50s believe they’ve been turned down for a job because of their age. And as our report today notes, ageism in health and social care can lead to over- or under-medication for pain, as well as a lower likelihood of being screened for sexually transmitted diseases or substance abuse. Previous research has also found that treatment rates drop disproportionately for people over 70 in areas such as surgery, chemotherapy and talking therapies.

These stereotypes, of course, don’t just affect how others perceive us – they can have a huge impact on how we think, feel, and behave. When older people are bombarded with messages telling them they’re over the hill or past it, they develop self-limiting beliefs that stop them doing many of the things they’d like to carry on doing – and, in many cases, that they easily could.

When it comes to coronavirus, the impact of language and attitudes that lump everyone over a certain age into a category labelled ‘vulnerable’ could do much more harm than good. Many over-70s will quite rightly not see themselves as particularly at risk – plenty don’t have any of the underlying health conditions that make people more vulnerable to the illness. There is a risk they won’t listen to advice that they perceive as patronising, irrelevant or even ageist. And writing off everyone in later life in this way risks alienating huge numbers of people in our communities who will be vital in looking out for friends and neighbours in the weeks and months to come.

In times of crisis, it’s more crucial than ever that we recognise and appreciate the variety of skills, experiences and abilities of everyone in our communities – at all ages. It’s all too easy for well-meaning words to contribute to damaging stereotypes, but it’s easy too for us to think more carefully about our language and our attitudes. The response to the coronavirus has shown, so far, that as a society we care deeply about our older friends, relatives and neighbours. We can show it by taking ageism seriously, and doing our part to eradicate it.

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Times on Thursday, 19 March 2020.

Tackling ageism

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Anna Dixon
Chief Executive