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Corona Diaries: the elderly are us, and we are them

May 14, 2020
Leonardo da Vinci, Heads of an old man and a youth

Those of us who have watched our parents grow decrepit and die might, if we have nobody older then them left to lose, support the idea that the elderly have had their time, and that we shouldn’t worry if the coronavirus helps them on their way. This is not new thinking. Flu has long been called the old man’s friend.

It’s both arrogant and unthinking to take this view. If you have a parent who is lying in a care home curled up in an insensible ball of dementia, I can understand the desire to let nature take its course. Likewise if an elderly person – or someone of any age for that matter – is struggling with an intolerable condition that sucks all the joy out of life, then their wish not to be resuscitated should be respected.

But not everyone sails slowly through Shakespeare’s Seventh Age of Man, “second childhood and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sand taste sans everything”.

My father died at 81. He was sharp as a pin. Had he lived another ten years I’m sure he would have remained so. He would have continued to practice law, go to the theatre and devote much time to his arcane reading interests. As well as speak the German he learned at 60. He drew a short straw called acute myeloid leukaemia.

My mother, on the hand, soldiered on into her nineties. Her world slowly shrunk into the four walls of her room in her care home. When she went, a lifetime’s interests had died before her. She no longer recognised her children and lived from meal to meal.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Which is why I absolutely adore watching interviews with older folks, especially those in their nineties and beyond. Captain Tom, the centenarian who was the focus for an effort that raised over £35 million for the NHS, is one example.

Then there was a lady in her nineties who featured in a documentary on the emergency room in one of the London hospitals. We discovered little about her life, except that her husband had died of dementia and her only daughter of breast cancer. She was, to use the cliché, fiercely independent. She was also as fluent and articulate as someone thirty years younger, yet she possessed the stoic reticence of someone who was not given to dwelling on life’s misfortunes, though she’d clearly seen a few.

And if you think that those who have reached a hundred are barely capable of stringing one sentence after another, there’s Owen Filer, who was first interviewed on ITV in January, and then in a follow-up during the current lockdown. If you haven’t seen the interview, I urge you to watch it.

I’m writing this in the middle of a huge row over the British government’s decision in March to send elderly people from hospitals to care homes without requiring them to be tested for COVID. In many of these care homes the staff were not provided with the necessary protective equipment. Many staff fell sick themselves, and many thousands of elderly residents have subsequently died of the disease.

My purpose is not to bash the Government. There are plenty of people, most notably Sir Kier Starmer, the new Leader of the Opposition, who are doing that far more effectively and with greater authority than I ever could.

I simply feel that we unfairly place this section of the population into a basket that we would never dare to use when thinking about other generations. “The elderly” are no less diverse than “the young”, the baby boomers, Gen X and all the other catch-all phrases we use to describe people of different age groups.

Some live in care homes, some live in their own houses, some are dependent, some play sports, tend gardens, write books, play music. Matathir Mohammed, a 95-year-old for goodness sake, was prime minister of Malaysia until this March.

Not all the elderly have the gift of wisdom any more than they had when they were young or middle-aged. Not all have nice, cuddly unthreatening personalities. Some are loved by their offspring, others loathed.

That’s because they’re individuals. Not an age group, not a demographic, not Conservative or Labour voters, rich or poor or just getting by. They may no longer be influential, except when politicians seek their votes every few years. They may be, to use that hateful phrase, “economically inactive”, in that they no longer work in offices, factories and fields.

But they are us, and we are them. They don’t have “Expiry Date” or “Best Before” written all over them. They’re just further down an uncertain track than the rest of us.

I don’t believe that old people automatically deserve our respect any more than people from any other generation. But those who are vulnerable, of any age, in a society that places a premium on quality of life, should be protected, not written off. Those who can look after themselves should be encouraged and helped to do so. We should not condescend to them, tell them how marvellous they are and treat them as oddities.

I love listening to old people not because they’re wonderful or special, but because they show me that individuality doesn’t end once we start drawing our old-age pensions.

The other day there was a story in the media about a Spanish woman of 105 who survived a coronavirus infection. She said that she was just an ordinary person, and she didn’t understand why she was getting so much attention. So there it is in a nutshell. The world thinks of her as a living miracle. She thinks of herself as just an individual.

Perhaps if we stopped shrugging our shoulders and taking the view that people whose voices have gone quiet no longer deserve to be thought of as individuals, we wouldn’t be in such a shameful mess as we are today.

From → Politics, Social, UK

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Bloody good article. Sorry about your Mum and Dad. My Mum still has a head full of marbles at 86 in 20 days’ time. (We need at least one international border and preferably an unswimmable strait between us at all times.)

    We’ll never know who was responsible for the stupidity in your ninth paragraph …. and only eyes will roll, rather than heads.

    I’m off for a hot bath and a K(e)ir Royale…our weekend starts now at 5.30pm CET.

    Have a good one !

    • Thanks Andrew. My dad died in 2003, and my mum four years ago. We men have a habit of diving into the river first to see if the water’s warm.

      Enjoy your weekend. Mine’s lasted for eight weeks so far!

  2. Yes Steve it does make sense. I loathe the categorization of old people as physically decrepit morons. There is even a little icon on one of the French government sites of a little bent, old lady leaning on her stick to lead one to some information for the older person. I want to scratch it out!
    Keep up the good comments!

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