Analysis: what older Irish men have to say about how they're represented in the media takes on new significance in the light of cocooning

By Margaret O'Neill and Áine Ní Léime, NUI Galway

In the play The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, a collection of fragile glass animals comes to represent the isolation of that which might easily be broken by the outside world. This symbol comes to mind when we consider the dominant media images of older people (aged 70 and over) in the current crisis: inside their homes and gazing out through glass windows because they have been told that they must 'cocoon’ in order to remain safe.

Cocooning, which involves staying at home and away from other people, was introduced in Ireland on March 27th and relaxed on May 5th. This change may have been in part due to advocacy by Age Action Ireland, ALONE and others.

What does cocooning suggest about the capacity and willingness of older people to comply with the guidelines in the same manner as other citizens? Is the implication that older people in Ireland are less likely to comply with the guidelines or that they are unable to understand them?

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Olivia O'Leary talks about the end of cocooning for older people

Cocooning may have been intended by the government as a protective measure, but cocooning older people as a concept can have lasting negative consequences. The images we are persistently presented with inform unconscious views about our own and others’ ageing. Depicting older people as frail or dependent may shape public and political attitudes and the formulation of new policies. For instance, the denial of the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) to those over the age of 66 in the workforce who have lost their jobs is symptomatic of our society’s failure to recognise the active lives and past and present contributions of the older population.

How governments are responding to the crisis reveals underlying social beliefs. A recent RTE Brainstorm article argues that "requesting all those over 70 years of age to cocoon unwittingly reveals … ageist assumptions". As the authors contend, it is ageist to assume that all older people fall into a homogenous, vulnerable group. Many adults over the age of 70 are fit and healthy and many have caring and work responsibilities.

In late 2019, we carried out focus groups with men aged over the age of 65 living in Ireland as part of an international project on TV, film and literary representations of older men entitled MASCAGE. The sessions explored how the images of older men in advertising, TV and film compare to, and whether they influence, the men’s lived experiences of ageing. 

Study participants also highlighted the persistence of polarised depictions of older men in visual culture, despite some recent variations

These observations take on new significance in the context of the policy of cocooning. In response to an image of an older man who felt confined inside a care home, one participant raised the issue of being "put in a box" in older age. "I suppose that's reality, older people are treated like that and held back and put into a box……. and that's frightening".

The participants also discussed the importance of having a positive mental approach to their own ageing and staying active, inquiring and socially engaged. One man noted that older people are "portrayed as being different because they’re older, and they don’t have to be". In response to a positive image of a man in his 80s preparing to fly a plane, one participant noted, "It’s not just that you’ve reached your goal and you’re now in extra time … you’re still looking forward to something." The instruction to cocoon casts doubt on such possibilities and brings about a loss of independence. If older people feel that they are a burden, this can increase their risk of depression. 

Study participants also highlighted the persistence of polarised depictions of older men in visual culture despite some recent variations. For example, one man said "they’re [either] in a hospital bed, or they’re 75, a Harrison Ford still out doing Indiana Jones".

The direction to all those aged over the age of 70 to cocoon removed the respect which was afforded to everyone else

But what power do such images have? When asked whether such images may affect them personally, one participant remarked "when you watch something … to fully engage with it you have to believe [it], and you turn to the outside world … some of that must remain with you". Returning to the image of the fragile older person cocooning behind the glass, representation holds the power to inform our shared social values and assumptions.

As we find ways to live with Covid-19, it is important to listen to and engage with multiple experiences of ageing, as opposed to simply making reductive assumptions. Representations of ageing in the current crisis will inform future individual and social attitudes, behaviours and policies. As a community, we are engaging in social distancing by choice, as an expression of our respect and care for others. It is for each of us to consider how vulnerable we are and whether we should cocoon.

But the direction to all those aged over the age of 70 to cocoon removed the respect, which was afforded to everyone else, of assuming that they would take responsibility for their own social distancing. Furthermore, it also endorses stereotypes of old age. Respect lies not in making presumptions about what is best for older people, but in providing them with the information to make a considered decision. Beyond cocooning, opening dialogue on older age can allow us to further explore the social and material ways that we can support older individuals through this time of crisis and beyond. 

The authors gratefully acknowledge the insights of the focus group participants

Dr Margaret O'Neill is a postdoctoral researcher at the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology and the Huston School of Film & Digital Media at NUI Galway. Dr Áine Ní Léime is Deputy Director at the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at NUI Galway. Both are researchers on the Irish Research Council-funded GENDER-NET plus 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