Some active, healthy and fit over-70s suddenly felt old, vulnerable and frail once lockdown was imposed, writes Clodagh Finn
It seems patronising to welcome back the over-70s, who have been allowed out to take short daily walks for the first time in six weeks. Coming from me (one of the over-50s), it’s also a bit rich but then I realise there is no such thing as ‘them’ and ‘us’ when it comes to age.
We are all heading in the same direction.
Now, at least, we can tell them from a two-metre distance that they were missed. The world has just not been the same since the Government advised the “vulnerable over-70s” to cocoon.
It was a drastic measure for drastic times – and it seems to have worked. There’s no denying that. Yet, you can’t ignore the fallout either. For one thing, the words ‘vulnerable’ and ‘over-70’ shouldn’t automatically be put together.
Pre-lockdown, many over-70s led full and active lives, never giving their age a second thought. Post-confinement, some of those same people say they feel lonely, useless and completely disempowered.
As the former politician and wonderfully ageless Mary O’Rourke put it, ‘cocoon’ “is a lovely sounding word; you think of a baby in his warm blanket, somebody wrapped up in a lovely duvet, or anything comfortable and nice.”
However, ‘cocoon’ as people are now witnessing it is anything but; it means “not seeing anyone, not going anywhere, not doing anything. Oh, how difficult it has all become.”
While the over-70s were partially released into the open this week, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has said restrictions and the shielding of the over-70s would continue for some time.
Yes, it is vital we do all we can to protect people from a virus that has hit the elderly hardest, but that does not make it right to bunch all the over-70s into one group. It is a blunt and ageist measure that has left many feeling they are a burden in this crisis.
Ironically, they are the very ones who have most to offer us now as they have witnessed, first-hand, polio epidemics, TB outbreaks and their respective long, difficult aftermaths.
Let’s not forget, as consultant geriatrician Rónán Collins wrote last month, the over-70s are net contributors to Irish society: “They reared us, educated us, healed us, financed us and are still working, helping with childminding [and] caring for family members.”
One of the upsides of the coronavirus is that the depth of their contribution is now in sharp focus. When you put a segment of the community under effective house arrest, as some have called it, the yawning gap caused by their absence is crystal clear.
To throw further light on how the over-70s enrich our society, researchers at Trinity College Dublin released a study last month to remind us of that.
To give a few examples. One in five grandparents provides childcare, which will be sorely missed now, while 21,000 others spend an average 25 hours a month caring for relatives, spouses, or others.
Nearly half of all over-70s do some form of voluntary work while up to 60% are engaged in a wide range of social and leisure activities.
One of the report’s authors, Professor Rose Anne Kenny, head of medical gerontology at TCD and St James’s Hospital, Dublin, said they prepared the report to counter an ugly seam of ageism left exposed by the outbreak of the coronavirus: “I think, that… 70 seems to be a cut off for not being too valuable any more to society.”
It’s a point taken up brilliantly by Dr Patricia Barker, a just 70-year-old who is fit, works part time and also volunteers, in a recent letter to a daily newspaper.
She gets it that the State wants to protect her health, she writes. She understands that it is trying to shelter her from the virus.
“All of this, I comprehend,” she continues. “But it does not feel good. I feel that I have lost control of my own life. I feel that my civil liberties have been dented. I suddenly feel frail and elderly. I feel useless. I feel that I have been herded with a large group of people of varying characteristics, health, fitness and resilience, simply by virtue of the single factor of chronology.”
She didn’t want anyone to problem-solve for her. She was writing, she explained, simply to be heard.
She is not alone. This week, we heard the concerns of older people in North Cork and East Kerry who said they felt cocooning had turned them into a burden on society.
People who never needed any kind of assistance before told the support service IRD Duhallow that they now feel they have lost their independence. They can no longer go to the shops, bingo, the local pub or socialise.
“Overnight this was taken away from them and all of a sudden these independent over-70s are now worrying in isolation,” IRD board chairman Breeda Moynihan-Cronin said.
The time will come when those active and healthy people will emerge from their ‘cocoons’. But before we give that hateful term back to the butterflies, let’s hope for a true metamorphosis when our over-70s finally break free.
First up, let’s address the pressing need to change the way we view and treat older people. The surge in deaths in our nursing homes coupled with the increasing sense of isolation felt by those cocooning make that a priority.
Right now, it feels as if Yeats hit the mark when he wrote in Sailing to Byzantium that an aged man (or indeed woman) was “but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick.” And he was a mere 63 when that was first published.
Of course we need to protect our older people during this crisis, but we also need to hear what they have to say and look at the potential downsides of cocooning.
In any case, it’s in all of our interests to create a country for old men, to continue the Yeats reference, because, health willing, we are all going to be living in it.