Opinion: requesting all those over 70 years of age to cocoon unwittingly reveals a number of ageist assumptions

By Michaela Schrage-Frueh and Tony Tracy, NUI Galway

It is almost a century since WB Yeats lamented that Ireland "was no country for old men." Yeats was just 60 years old when he bemoaned that "an aged man is but a paltry thing", feeling past it as he looked around at the young in one another’s arms.

Many men and women of a comparative age today would classify themselves as still "young" and few would identify as "old". As a recent New Yorker article testifies, the post-war Boomer generation have been criticised – mostly by their adult children – for not initially taking the current coronavirus threat seriously enough because they do not see themselves as vulnerable. In the midst of a pandemic in which age and ageing are to the fore, this dissonance of definitions alerts us to the ways in which concepts of age differ and change. 

In daily news and discussion of the Covid-19 crisis, ageing and the so-called elderly have been central themes in both policy and commentary, prompting not only medical responses but an array of social ones also. While the former have developed from empirical if continually evolving evidence, the latter can be seen as expressing "underlying conditions" around our attitudes to ageing. Revealing these attitudes and acknowledging that ageing has social as well as biological meanings has resulted in the emerging field of cultural gerontology, which looks at often monolithic constructions of older people.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Olivia O'Leary on how she is not settling too comfortably into her cocoon

In relation to the coronavirus crisis, we can see a familiar overlapping of biological and social constructions. From the outset, the language of Irish governmental response to the emerging crisis was admirably clear and inclusive, seeking to both learn from the Italian tragedy while offering reassurance and a sense of collective purpose. This last term, first used by Leo Varadkar in his extraordinary St Patrick’s Day speech, revealed an enlightened attitude to ageing, seeing it as a shared social rather than merely personal responsibility.

This language contrasted notably with the UK where, as early as March 15th, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the British government will eventually be asking everyone over the age of 70 to self-isolate to stem the spread of coronavirus. This was notable in its underlying attitude of "parking" the aged, seeing them as separate to the everyday business and daily life of British society which, it was anticipated at that stage, would continue without them.

While this was presented in terms of self-protection, it also contained an allusion, as Boris Johnson’s pronouncements have tended to do, to Second World War era self-sacrifice. That such ideas were primarily aimed at the elderly was particularly disingenuous and displayed an everyday ageism, dressed up as Second World War romance and nostalgia.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Celine Clarke, Head of Advocacy and Communications with Age Action, on the obstacles facing older people in accessing advice on the coronavirus

Such attitudes developed a sharper edge earlier in March when Jeremy Warner, assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph, penned a now infamous opinion piece: "not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents." Despite the ensuing backlash, such ideas were amplified in Toby Young’s recent article where he downplayed the death of potentially thousands as "acceptable collateral damage" and provided a cost-benefit analysis regarding the value of the survivors’ remaining years.

In stark contrast to this, Professor Sam McConkey from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland cogently explained cocooning as "helping others who are in isolation to get the groceries and to maybe get some food and to help them with the practical realities of daily life . . . So cocooning is when others help the more vulnerable."

While this seems a sensible response based on scientific evidence, requesting all 70+ year-olds to cocoon unwittingly reveals a number of ageist assumptions. It suggests that this population are a homogenous group that can be lumped together as the "elderly", a patronising term often associated with frailty and dependency. However, ageing in itself is not a disease, and there are many 70+-year-olds who boast more robust health and more energetic dispositions than some people in their 40s or 50s. Additionally, some 70+ adults have families – parents, children, grandchildren or spouses – to care for, some are still an active part of the workforce or may be retired health workers.

While flattening the curve is the highest priority at this time, it should not be ignored that the coronavirus crisis brings subconsciously ageist assumptions to the fore

With this in mind, the British Society of Gerontology released a statement calling on their government "to reject the formulation and implementation of policy based on the simple application of chronological age." As they argue, "not all people over the age of 70 are vulnerable, nor all those under 70 resilient." Helping and protecting the vulnerable in our society is the right thing to do; but indiscriminately classifying the 70+, as a homogenous age group might have unforeseen consequences for how we view ageing at exactly the moment when we are rapidly ageing as a society.

Cultural gerontologists have challenged ageist generalisations by suggesting the term "the third age" for the demographic of the "young old", typically ranging from 65 to 80 years of age. These are in turn juxtaposed with the demographic of the "fourth age" or "frail old", those older adults in need of care. It is obvious that this categorisation bears its own inherent problems.

This is where we need to attend to Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s observation that we are also very much "aged by culture".  One of the central stereotypes in need of debunking is the "master narrative of decline" by which the leading cultural gerontologist refers to the conflation of older age with the loss of cognitive and physical abilities, and with ensuing dependency, frailty and lack of agency.

While flattening the curve is the highest priority at this time, it should not be ignored that the coronavirus crisis brings subconsciously ageist assumptions to the fore. This insight leads us back to our starting point and Yeats’s poem about the woes and alleged "paltriness" of old age. To understand ageing we need to attend to its construction in literature, film, the media and other forms of cultural production.

Dr Michaela Schrage-Frueh is a Lecturer in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at NUI Galway. Dr Tony Tracy is a Lecturer in the Houston School of Film and Digital Media at NUI Galway. Both are researchers on the Irish Research Council-funded EU project MascAge: Ageing Masculinities in European Literatures and Cinemas


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ