During lockdown, I narrowly missed being run down by a speeding van on an otherwise empty road, its driver giving me two fingers as I tried to slow him down. My angry reaction was: us older people are dispensable now. The feeling has been growing – fed by the enveloping Covid crisis. And I’m not the only over 70-year-old unhappy with the government’s efforts to ‘keep us safe’.
During the early part of lockdown there were contradictory messages all round, not just for older people. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, supported ‘some degree of herd immunity’ in order to reduce transmission, later backtracking. Yet government advice was also that all those aged 70 or older – ‘regardless of medical conditions’– should be considered clinically vulnerable and shield for several months.
The result was confusion as well as outrage at the age discrimination. The Centre for Ageing Better stated: “Covid reinforced the idea of older people as frail and vulnerable”. Many active over-70-year-olds have rejected this image. Pat is one of them:
“Personally I was very angry at first at being lumped into a silent and helpless category and decided from the start to stay as visible as I could, so do my own shopping, walk out as far as I could, within the spirit of the guidance.”
Maggie thought she had coronavirus early on, but was unable to get tested: “My main personal experience was how hopeless the system was. The NHS 111 helpline told me I couldn’t be tested because, although I had a very high temperature, fatigue, and cough, it wasn’t the right sort of cough.”
Although advised to visit her doctor, Maggie refused for fear of spreading the infection and gave up trying to get a test. Little has changed on the testing front since then. Several friends have had operations and treatment delayed or cancelled because Covid-19 has taken priority, which may have negative longer-term effects on their health.
Pam decided to shield during lockdown because of her partner’s health, but she felt uncomfortable about reducing her independence: “It was a totally new experience being dependent on others rather than the ones doing the helping and organising, etc. I really didn’t like that aspect.” As lockdown has eased, she has started to go out more, though remaining cautious and minimising risk.
Age UK reports that older people living in their own homes are at no greater risk of catching Covid-19 than younger people, but if they catch it, the risk of being seriously ill or dying from it are higher. Four in five of all coronavirus deaths by the end of May were aged 70 and over. However, pre-existing medical conditions, gender and ethnicity are key factors as well as age.
The risks in care homes are clearly far higher. Discharging 25,000 elderly patients from hospital to care homes without testing was an appalling and avoidable tragedy. The government’s attempt to blame the care homes for the deaths was met with anger. The Lancet reports that there were 20,000 excess deaths in care homes from March to May, representing 30 per cent of all coronavirus deaths. Most had other underlying conditions, including dementia, although, with visitors banned, isolation would have been a contributory factor. Another often overlooked factor, reports Gransnet, is the vast amount of unpaid childcare grandparents undertake. Vicky explained the ‘real dilemma’ faced by many grandparents, especially if one or both had health conditions: “The impact would be dramatic if all grandparents just stopped providing childcare.”
Tess usually collects her grandchildren from school, but became uneasy about the increased threat of contracting coronavirus. Luckily (in one way), her daughter was furloughed, so Tess no longer had to do this, but she missed the direct contact with her grandchildren.
Latest government guidelines enable grandparents to provide childcare even though the medical evidence has not changed. This has obvious benefits for family contact, as well as for the economy – freeing up parents to work. But the risk of infection remains unchanged.
As cases of Covid-19 rise again, there are real fears that little has changed in terms of preparation for a second wave, especially in care homes, despite the government’s pledge to provide weekly tests for care home staff.
The UK’s new trade envoy, Tony Abbott, recently advocated leaving some elderly people to die naturally to reduce the economic costs of Covid-19. That echoed the reported remarks of the prime minister’s special adviser Dominic Cummings (later denied) that herd immunity would protect the economy, ‘and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’.
Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, a UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, calls this kind of language ‘cruel and dehumanising’, emphasising older people’s vulnerability but ‘ignoring their autonomy’ and silencing their voices.
The anger and frustration felt by many older people at ageist attitudes are not going to go away. As Pam said: “I have absolutely no intention of listening to Tory guidance – they couldn’t give a damn whether we live or die.”
Many thanks to friends who contributed to this article. Some names have been changed.