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ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - Libby Znaimer (libby@zoomer.ca) is VP of news on AM740 and Clas­si­cal 96.3 FM (ZoomerMe­dia prop­er­ties). By Libby Znaimer

“YOU WOULDN’T be­lieve some of the be­hav­iour dur­ing se­niors hours at the gro­cery store,” my friend Brenda vented early in the lock­down. She is a fit, at­trac­tive 60-some­thing wo­man who took to lin­ing up for early ac­cess to stores not be­cause of her age, though she qual­i­fied on that count, but be­cause chemo­ther­apy was com­pro­mis­ing her im­mune sys­tem. “Peo­ple were just so rude, talk­ing about me like I wasn’t there, say­ing ‘Doesn’t she know this time is for se­niors only?’”

The pan­demic has re­vealed deep, sys­temic ageism in our coun­try, and the na­tional shame of what hap­pened in long-term care is just one part of it. It has also re­cast a vast swath of vi­tal and ac­tive older adults as vul­ner­a­ble, at risk and in need of pro­tec­tion. It seems to have taken us from “60 is the new 40” to “60 is the new frail.”

It started with the odi­ous so­cial me­dia hash­tag #BoomerRe­mover, which re­in­forced the idea that the deaths of older peo­ple was in­evitable while the young were im­mune. Early on, many pub­lic health au­thor­i­ties urged every­one over 70 to self-iso­late re­gard­less of their health. The town of Bea­cons­field, Que., did one bet­ter, en­cour­ag­ing every­one that age to sign up for a “vul­ner­a­ble per­son reg­istry.” This par­tic­u­larly galled me. Some of the guys in my hus­band’s cy­cling group are in their 70s. The fastest, most com­pet­i­tive rider is ac­tu­ally the old­est, at 77. They got through the worst part of the lock­down by tak­ing phys­i­cally dis­tanced 40- to 60-kilo­me­tre bike rides sev­eral times a week.

Stay­ing shut­tered at home would have been more likely to harm their phys­i­cal and men­tal health, rather than help it.

The au­thor­i­ties have been clas­si­fy­ing the de­mo­graphic most likely to suf­fer se­ri­ous ill­ness and death from COVID-19 as sim­ply “over 60.” The news about the over-60 death toll was of­ten re­ported with hor­rific pic­tures from long-term care, con­tribut­ing to a skewed im­age of a 60-year-old in the 21st cen­tury. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by more than 20 in­ter­na­tional re­searchers in the field of aging in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of the Bri­tish Geri­atrics So­ci­ety, while mor­tal­ity rates are higher in older age groups, “Age is be­ing con­flated with frailty and co­mor­bid­ity, which are likely to be the more im­por­tant fac­tors.” Their con­clu­sion is that older peo­ple have been mis­rep­re­sented, un­der­val­ued and con­de­scended to, through­out the pan­demic.

Re­cently two pub­lic fig­ures re­ferred to a 62-year-old as “el­derly.” Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, a Toron­to­based in­fec­tious disease spe­cial­ist who has be­come prom­i­nent on tele­vi­sion through the pan­demic, used that word to de­scribe a men­tally ill man who was trag­i­cally shot by po­lice. So did On­tario MPP Gur­ratan Singh (and NDP leader Jag­meet Singh’s brother). Age was clearly the least rel­e­vant fac­tor in this in­ci­dent, but they were prob­a­bly us­ing it as a proxy for help­less­ness – never mind that 62 is even younger than the old manda­tory re­tire­ment age. Nei­ther has re­sponded to crit­i­cism of their use of the term.

Those who do need help and pro­tec­tion also de­serve re­spect for their own agency. The rules for re­sum­ing vis­its in re­tire­ment and nurs­ing homes are re­stric­tive to the point of be­ing pro­hib­i­tive. “This re­open­ing seems to in­volve every­one else but older adults,” ge­ri­a­tri­cian Dr. Nathan Stall tweeted. “Has any­one asked older adults what they want?”

The new vi­sion of aging that we es­pouse has be­come a blind spot be­cause of COVID-19. Those who epit­o­mize it are sim­ply “pass­ing” as younger. It’s un­clear how this will play out when the health threat is over. Will it be harder for us to keep work­ing or be elected to pub­lic of­fice? Will the pub­lic reck­on­ing on race and men­tal health ex­tend to ageism as well, or will it re­main one of the last ac­cept­able prej­u­dices?

In the mean­time, Brenda can take get­ting called out in the su­per­mar­ket as a com­pli­ment. “Do you want to see my ID?” she asked the clerk when she got to the front of the line. “No,” was the re­sponse. “I just want to know your se­cret.”

“Age was clearly the least rel­e­vant fac­tor ... us­ing it as a proxy for help­less­ness”

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