PAUL HOPKINS: Life in the time of coronavirus: Let’s not consign all old people to Ga Ga land …
We might like to think that those in the autumn of their years have never had it so good. Thanks to advancements in nutrition and medicine, not to mention those (no thanks!) elective cosmetic treatments, our picture of ageing has changed radically in the past decades. In my lifetime, life expectancy has risen from 69 to 78 years.
Then comes Covid-19 and, all of a sudden, people aged 65 and older, two-in-17 of us, are collectively labeled “high risk” — regardless of their health — and instructed to stay home, to cocoon in Ga Ga Land. Seemingly, this categorisation stems from the impact the coronavirus has had on residents of care homes. The reality is that our care homes house only a small percentage of those in their autumn years, and many of those are frail or have those ‘underlying causes’ to begin with, but we’re talking about a fairly small portion of the older adult population.
Yes, a vulnerable population has suffered the brunt: over-65s sadly account for 90% of coronavirus deaths recorded here and a blind eye was turned regarding care homes. But generalising by saying “it’s all older adults” presents a view of old age that is just downright wrong.
We need to start thinking about both biological and chronological age. Chronological age is the years since birth, whereas biological age reflects physiology and how well a person is functioning.
Me? I’m functioning pretty darn good, thank you very much, bus pass or no. Yeats’ image of “a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick” is long confined to the lexicon of yesteryear.
Having said that, growing old — as we all must, if we’re lucky enough to make it thus far — can have its, eh, downsides. Hospitalisation. Cardiac problems, bowel cancer, breast cancer, fatal and non-fatal. Chronic immobilising pain in spine, knee, neck, foot. High blood-pressure. Not to mention car accidents and farm accidents. Then there can be dementia, Alzheimer’s or suicide attempts — or thoughts because life seems suddenly tedious and pointless.
I need to lie down now, that above list has me suddenly all exhausted.
Oh God, and then there’s being forced to live with people you can’t stand. I don’t think about it — okay, okay, I do … occasionally. And what I fear most is loss of autonomy, the kind of poverty that destroys autonomy. Unstinting boredom caused by an inability to read or hear. My deepest dread is of being reduced, simplified. Afraid that I’ll be robbed of the richness of who I am — my wonderful, individual complexity stripped away by forces beyond my control.
It hasn’t come to that … yet, thank God. And I am so not alone in this.
That said, there is the real danger that post-Covid-19, societies, in particular the young, will see older people as all lumped into one frail and incompetent lot. Let’s guard against going there, please.
Up to the coming of this lockdown, there had a lot of debate about whether working people should retire at 65. Sean O’Rourke leaving his flagship RTE show is a case in point. For me it would be a far less wondrous world if writers, singers, film-makers, musicians and artists were forced to do likewise. Imagine, no more Mick Jagger. And look how a great representative for us is President Michael D Higgins.
At the end of the day the biggest fear of growing old is of being alone. Of social isolation.
Some years ago I was befriended by an old woman on my nightly commute home. She was a raggedy old thing, and smelt to high heaven. She told me she was living (pretty rough I imagined) in a two-roomed house at the end of a big garden and that the local council was trying to evict her, mainly because of all her cats.
Could I write a story about her plight? I would consider it, I honestly replied. She began hounding me and one afternoon turned up at my newspaper, refusing to leave until I saw her. In a moment of anger and looming deadline I gave short shrift to her tatty demeanour.
I saw her a few times after that. We ignored each other. Then I never saw her again. Perhaps the council did evict her, perhaps she just died through lack of proper care.
And I remembered she once told me she had a daughter, somewhere. A daughter she hadn’t seen or heard from in years …