The Third Third

Beware the Elderly

Beware the elderly.  Or is it, Beware, Elderly?  Or Elderly beware?

In any case, I am increasingly distressed to find myself classified among the  “elderly” these days.   Almost as distressed, I confess, as I am about the Covid-19 pandemic.  Don’t get me wrong.  Covid-19 is a life-threatening menace, a take-no-prisoners natural disaster, and particularly in this country with this president a national disaster, too, and even if you escape infection, a miserable inconvenience. And I hope and pray it ends soon.  But we all know how terrifically insufficient all those “hopes and prayers” have been in the face of other natural disasters, not to mention gun violence.  (I digress.  I’m told the “elderly” do that a lot.)

Perhaps I am reacting to the “elderly” label self-protectively.  It could be that the very idea of a deadly pandemic in my lifetime is so terrifying that I am choosing to focus instead on the term “elderly,” and the inexorable vicissitudes of aging it conjures in others and, clearly, in me.

Funny thing is, I felt just as strongly about eschewing “middle aged” as an identity when I was 45 (which is admittedly just about as middle aged as one can hope to be).  I guess I have this thing about ageism, and the thing about it is, my own response is text-book ageism. At its worst.  I make assumptions about what it means to be a certain age and I harbor prejudices against those assumptions without looking beyond them to each person as an individual who happens to have had X number of birthdays.

Nevertheless, for health care purposes, it is beginning to make sense to come to terms with being “elderly,” even when I wish I were not.  There are, of course, healthy elderly and frail elderly, folks over 60 who are in shape and folks who are in terrible shape, people who take good care of themselves and those who are not able to, and across all demographics, but especially ours, many who have very legitimately concerning “underlying conditions,” all of which make each of us more — or less — vulnerable to disease and viral infections.  The basic biological fact I am forcing myself to come to terms with is that my immune system is probably just as flabby as my upper arms, and for the same singular reason — my age.

The shallow, vain part of me is stomping my feet and shouting “Don’t call me old!”  But my deeper concern is more philosophical, even existential.  If I am, if we are,  broadly labeled and officially identified as  “elderly,” for public health purposes, what does that mean for our access to and our level of care?  Might we be triaged, as reportedly happened in Italy,  to the end of the line say, for respirators,  no matter how sick we become, if someone has tacit permission to calculate that we’ve lived long enough, or that we don’t have enough years left to be worth saving?  We become a problem in search of a solution, an “other” whose worth and value is summarily  diminished because of only one identifying factor of who we are, our age.  This happens with all “others” who are so classified:  the poor, for example; migrants; women; children; racial minorities; gays; and people who are trans. And thus, I resist.

Don’t call me elderly.  My name is Ann.

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