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A New Ageism? The Fallout From the Pandemic

Highlights from the Longevity Project's recent Zoomcast on ageism in America


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

Has the coronavirus pandemic led to a surge in ageism in America? And if so, what could be done to address that?

Those were among the big questions discussed at the Longevity Project’s lively July 15 Zoomcast on ageism and the pandemic, where I (Managing Editor of Next Avenue) was honored to be one of the three panelists and more than 300 people attended.

I was joined on the panel — held by the new initiative developed in collaboration with the Stanford Center on Longevity — by two Next Avenue Influencers in Aging: Dr. Louise Aronson, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco division of geriatrics and author of Elderhood (a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist) and Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. Ken Stern, co-chair of the Longevity Project, moderated.

“A poll released earlier this week by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation revealed that older Americans experience high levels of ageism on almost a daily basis,” Stern said, kicking off the webinar. And, he added, the poll was conducted in December 2019, before the pandemic.

Overall, Aronson said, “tragically, ageism has been on the rise worldwide.”

Noting that “you can die young or you can become old,” Aronson described ageism as “a prejudice against our future selves.” Irving dubbed ageism “very sadly, the one acceptable ‘ism’” in America. His hope: “that we can borrow some of the wonderful action and work being done by young people to try to bridge other divides and tackle social inequities and try to apply it to our negative age bias.”

You can watch the freewheeling Zoomcast on the Longevity Project site.

But here are highlights of what we three boomers said on topics including: whether the pandemic has altered perceptions of aging; ageist views of younger and older Americans; ageism’s effect on the U.S. economy; the role of race; why older adults are often left out of vital clinical trials and the media’s role in curbing ageism in our nation.

Has the Pandemic Altered Perceptions of Aging in America?

Aronson said she thought “it made some things better and some things worse.”

On the plus side, Aronson said, “there’s been more media attention on older people than I’ve ever seen,” as well as some additional empathy and interest in aging.

But, she noted, the pandemic has also spread misconceptions of aging.

“For example, only about three percent of older people live in skilled nursing homes and the fact that nursing homes have been the sites of so much death has, I think, reinforced the notion that all of old age is old and frail, when we know even if you look at our national leaders — for better and worse — that is clearly not true.”

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Overall, Aronson said, “tragically, ageism has been on the rise worldwide.”

Irving talked about “a tale of two pandemic outcomes for older Americans,” based on their income, wealth, jobs and race.

“Many of us are able to do a lot of our work online and have access to the internet,” he said. For these older adults, “it’s a manageable time,” he added. But “for so many older people who are in jobs requiring physical labor or who are already living in situations reflecting the inequity of society, this [the pandemic] has made things worse.”

Overall, Irving told the audience, ageism is a public health crisis “and it deserves to be confronted and called out.”

I added that, based on what I learned reporting and writing my Next Avenue post, “Will COVID-19 Make the Decline Narrative of Aging Worse?” the pandemic is altering perceptions of aging, for the worse. “We’re seeing it all kinds of ways — in employment, in health care rationing and in its effect on families,” I noted.

But, I added, anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite (also a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging) doesn’t believe the pandemic has made ageism worse. She thinks the coronavirus outbreak has instead exposed ageism, which she says is a good thing.

Ageist Views of Younger and Older Americans

I took issue with the popular idea that all younger Americans have been ageist towards older Americans in the pandemic and vice versa, saying: “I think we have to be careful about overgeneralizing of populations, young or old. It’s not fair. It’s not accurate…There are some very smart young people who are doing all the right things and I think there are older people who are doing all the wrong things.”

Panelists Richard Eisenberg (left), Dr. Louise Aronson and Paul Irving
Panelists Richard Eisenberg, Dr. Louise Aronson and Paul Irving

Aronson worried about older Americans who’ve developed ageist views about themselves. “Sometimes people think: ‘I just have to take it because I’m old’ or ‘Old age does have to be bad’ or ‘Maybe we should be sacrificed,’” she said.

Ageism’s Effect on the U.S. Economy

The panel also discussed the huge number of older workers who’ve lost their jobs due to the pandemic and growing fears that some who’ve been furloughed won’t be asked back to work because of their age. Workers age 65 and older now make up roughly 20% of the labor force.

Older Americans are also substantial consumers, Irving noted, and if they’re jobless due to their age, they won’t be buying products or services, which will be a drag on the U.S. economy.

“If we don’t address ageism, we’re in for a long period of economic malaise,” Irving said.

“In the last recession, when people lost their jobs, it took older people twice as long to get hired as younger people, on average.”

The importance of age-diverse workforces, Irving noted, “is happening in some places, but principally internationally among larger companies…That message is getting to the U.S. much more slowly and I think every HR manager and person in C-suites should be thinking of the reality of our emerging demography, both in terms of race and gender and very much age and adapt their businesses to what the twenty-first century actually looks like.”

I noted that we haven’t seen much attention in the United States to helping older workers find jobs or improve their skills and that this is true elsewhere, too.

The Big Middle podcast with Susan Flory just had an episode saying that the government in Great Britain announced a great, big wonderful new plan to help younger people get jobs again, but didn’t say a thing about older workers,” I said.

And, I reminded the audience, “let’s not forget that in the last recession, when people lost their jobs, it took older people twice as long to get hired as younger people, on average.” I noted that I don’t think things will be different this time.

Race and Ageism

“We sometimes forget that you can be old and a person of color and that those things tend to be not so much additive as synergistic in a phenomenon called intersectionality — that if you have one disadvantage and another, they really tend to make each other worse,” said Aronson.

She cited a study of U.S. nursing homes during the pandemic that said “after you made everything equal — type of insurance, amount of money, health conditions, niceness of facility — that if a facility had more African Americans, people were more likely to get COVID and die from COVID in that facility.”

Irving also talked about the disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths among people of color. “A study in Italy showed that co-morbidities are really the principal [coronovarius] risk, more important than chronological age,” he said. “We know that communities of color suffer those risks more than the rest of us.”

In her recent MedPage Today article, “Let Ageism Bite the Dust,” New York Medical College’s Angela Rosetti noted that although 75% to 80% of COVID-19 deaths have been people over 65, only 7% of COVID-19 deaths listed the coronavirus as the only cause. On average, the people who died had 2 ½ additional co-morbidities.

Older Adults’ Exclusion From Clinical Trials

Stern mentioned that the new Moderna COVID-19 vaccine study didn’t include anyone over 55 and asked: “What’s the story behind this? How can that be? Is it normal?”

Aronson replied: “This has sadly been in a tradition in the United States,” adding that clinical trials have traditionally used people like medical students and have often been comprised primarily of middle-class males. It wasn’t until 2019, she said, that the National Institute of Health mandated inclusion of older adults in medical research.

I noted that Moderna says the next round of its COVID-19 vaccine trial will include people over 55.

The Media’s Role in Curbing Ageism

Stern pointedly asked me, as a “member of the mainstream media,” this: Has the media’s coverage about aging and the pandemic been the right coverage?

My Stern reply: “I think the media could always do a better job, as is true in every profession, but I do think the media is shining a light on perceptions of aging.”

What Could Be Done to Address Ageism in America?

One thing that would help address ageism in America, said Irving: activism.

“If you believe tackling ageism requires a movement, you need to realize there’s a need for action at the top and at the bottom. We need action in companies, communities and in the streets to tackle ageism. And we need leadership,” said Irving. “Every one of us today has a part in this.”

RIchard Eisenberg, editor at Next Avenue wearing a suit jacket in front of a teal background.
By Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow him on Twitter.

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