Labeling seniors ‘vulnerable’ to COVID-19 reinforces ageism issues

Labeling seniors ‘vulnerable’ to COVID-19 reinforces ageism issues

Labeling seniors ‘vulnerable’ to COVID-19 reinforces ageism issues
Seniors, who might be separated from family and only able to communicate with them electronically during the pandemic, may face blame for the worldwide shutdown because they are labeled “vulnerable” to the virus. (Georg Pflueger photo)

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you feel powerless.

With one fell swoop, nature and COVID-19 have made a mockery of our best laid plans – forcing them into containment.

Seniors have been labeled the most vulnerable to the disease, with early stories of countries gripped with the virus showing doctors having to decide who was worth saving. In some places, seniors were abandoned and left to die.

But some experts, including professors of gerontology at the University of Southern California, are questioning the concept. They believe labeling seniors as vulnerable may have to do with ageist thinking, which is more rampant in the media and society than many people like to recognize or even understand.

They see seniors “being marginalzied because of ageism, with scorn being shown toward them and even being blamed for the staying in place order.” But according to the World Health Oganization (WHO), young adults are taking up more of the ICU beds.

Deeming seniors as the most vulnerable highlights the potential issues in ageist assumptions. WHO has stated that ageism may be more pervasive than sexism or racism, making it the most widely acepted form of social prejudice.

The professors say ageism rears its ugly head within American society through advertisements, greeting cards and movies using blatantly ageist images. Meanwhile, late night TV shows “seek cheap laughs that emphasize frailty, confusion and memory loss, all negative imagery of seniors that would not be acceptable if they were used on the basis of race or gender.”

Seniors can help themselves by not only being aware of these practices, but also by being mindful about words they use about themselves so that they are not reinforcing these negative  images. The professors of gerontology believe words can have tremendous impact.

“Words like geezer, hag, crotchety and over the hill are stock phrases used to describe older people, even sometimes by seniors themselves. These words shape our attitudes toward older people and also reinforce our own negative perceptions about aging – something we then eventually transfer to ourselves.”

Maggie Lennon is a writer and photographer who writes about navigating the aging process. Check out her blog, “The Sensational Sixties. An everywoman’s guide to getting older.” Contact her at