In Pursuit of Normalcy

Members | June 02, 2020 | by Carol Silver Elliott

Carol Silver Elliott, LeadingAge board chair, talks about how ageism impacts our decision-making.

There is lots of talk these days about re-opening this and re-opening that and we are all looking to “get our lives back,” whatever that means. We each have our list of things we will “do first,” from seeing our families and friends to getting that much-needed haircut.

But where do our older adults stand in this return to normal? They are still in “lockdown” without visitors, without group activities, and without communal dining. They are being “protected for their own good” but why is it that protection feels a lot like punishment?

Elders, by virtue of their age and the fact that they live in a communal residential setting, have been deprived of choices of all sorts including, but not limited to, the freedom of movement. They’ve had no input, no chance to express an opinion, no vote—just the imposition of rules that seemed to come out of nowhere, rules that have an overwhelmingly significant impact on their lives.

When did being physically fragile and requiring support become the standard by which you lose all of your rights? When did the need for safety override the need for quality of life?

In all of this desire to protect, there is also an element of ageism.  We, who are not elderly, get to make all of the decisions and you, because you are “old,” are not entitled to make any decisions.  We, who are not elderly, can decide to wear a mask and be socially distant but you, because you are “old,” have to stay in your room or apartment all of the time.  We, who are not elderly, can complain about the isolation of our homes and the stress of managing our children, our work, our online grocery orders but you, because you are “old,” have nothing to manage, nothing to decide, and nothing to think about other than the empty life you are living every day.

There are those who think that self-isolation, school and business closures and state shutdowns have been just about “those old people” that need to be protected. Not only is that not true as, sadly, many people of all ages have perished in this pandemic, but it also breeds resentment that is also ageist.

Imprisoning our elders is not the answer. Denying them all but the basic necessities of life is not the answer. Opening the dry cleaners but not letting a 95-year old see her family is just wrong on so many levels. If we are, indeed, heading to normalcy, it is time to free our older adults and time to recognize that their lives have meaning too.