“Four other deaths, all of the elderly. “
For the family of John Fox, already in mourning, these words cut like a knife in a fresh wound.
The retired RCMP officer died earlier that day from COVID-19 at the age of 73.
Suddenly, he was nothing more than a statistic, part of a line disposable for evening news. Hearing Mr. Fox described as “an elderly person,” although anonymous, shocked the family.
“This word is so loaded, so dismissive,” says Margaret Gillis, his sister-in-law.
And so common.
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What is the implication when you describe someone as “old”? Are they unimportant? Disposable? Ready to die?
Ms. Gillis says these are assumptions that we make all too often about older people.
And she would know.
In addition to losing a loved one due to the pandemic, Ms. Gillis is president of the International Longevity Center (ILC Canada), a group that advocates for the human rights of seniors and against widespread ageism in society.
“John’s death made the pandemic more real for me,” says Gillis. “It also gave a new urgency to my work – to fight against the almost consanguineous ageism in the society. “
Gillis says that seeming to call someone “older” may not seem like a big deal, but language matters because assumptions and prejudice permeate public policy.
We need look no further than the horror story unfolding in nursing homes and long-term care facilities in Canada and around the world.
We have known from the start that people in institutions were among the most vulnerable to a pandemic. Yet little has been done to protect them.
News of epidemics in institutions that house the elderly spreads when the situation becomes so serious that dozens of people die – such as at Residence Herron in Dorval, Quebec, or the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ontario.
But it is difficult to determine the number of epidemics in these high-risk establishments, a reminder of the old adage: “If you don’t count it, it doesn’t count. “
For the most part, the elderly do not count.
We have seen this in debates about what would happen if COVID-19 submerged hospitals. The beds and fans would go first to the young, not the disabled and the elderly.
“In Italy, you could barely walk in the door of a hospital if you were over 60,” said Gillis.
The stories of elderly people found dead in retirement homes and in their homes in Spain and Italy are legion. Most were not even counted in official coronavirus statistics.
Even more old dead.
“We have this attitude that people who are not seen as contributing to the economy have no value,” said Gillis.
In popular culture, you can joke about a person’s age in a way that you cannot talk about their race or religion. We see this also reflected in popular memes like “Okay, Boomer” – which turned into the more nihilistic descriptor “Boomer Remover” of the coronavirus.
Many have downplayed the severity of the pandemic by saying that it “only kills the elderly.” Others have suggested that, rather than the sweeping rules of physical distancing that have been imposed, we simply quarantine the elderly and let everyone go on with their lives, or let the coronavirus go wild so that immunity of the herd develops and that “the old and the weak” are slaughtered.
Gillis says these crude approaches ignore the fact that “human rights have no expiration date” and that many, if not most, of the elderly have a rich life.
She points to her brother-in-law, saying that like all of the others who died in the pandemic, “it is more than a statistic … he was a spouse, father, grandfather who contributed greatly to his community. ”
Mr. Fox was a large human bear, healthy as a horse, with no underlying health issues before contracting a coronavirus.
Shortly before he fell ill, he played golf; for the past few weeks, he had been kayaking and hiking. Mr. Fox was an active volunteer in a therapeutic riding group for children with developmental and physical disabilities. Having seen far too many horrific accidents on the road during his police career, Mr. Fox was also a dedicated blood donor.
“Elderly” was certainly not a suitable label.
But is this ever the case?
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