New world, same humans

November 9, 2020

Amid all the talk of shielding the vulnerable and isolating the ageing population from the ravages of COVID-19, have we forgotten the significant contribution that older people make to our society? Nic Palmarini, director at the UK National Innovation Centre Ageing, explores the issue.

They told us that today we are in a new world. Where nothing will be as before. Where we have the opportunity to become what we have always theorized to be – better humans, more respectful of others and of our small planet – but that for one reason or another (our interests? Our small profit?) we have never been able to be.

We were told that we were in a new world and – damn it – we realised it. But that opportunity to be different, did we really take it? Are we seizing it? Because from the edge of this second wave in which we find ourselves, it doesn’t seem so.

After the first months of the year while the coronavirus was spreading all over the world, a narrative about the ‘expendability’ of the older adults in the face of the unpreparedness of the healthcare machine emerged almost instantaneously in public opinion, somehow fuelled by politics, but certainly set on fire by the media.

A phenomenon that has associated in a completely natural way – without any verification based on data – are the words ‘old age’ and ‘vulnerability’ giving rise to a mechanism as popular and obvious as superficial and wrong.

And after having discussed throughout the summer – supported by a faint hope that the virus had subsided – how, after all, that narrative was an obnoxious thing to condemn, here we are again, struggling with the same antiphon.

The dramatic numbers of the pandemic, the carnage that occurred in nursing homes, are still painfully in everyone’s eyes, but they risk making us classify the old people as part of a single cauldron, without realising how much that cauldron is actually a river of fluid lava, lit and alive, made of unduplicable lapilli, so different from each other, so unique from each other.

We see them all together, we demographically classify them as a superficial black and uniform mass because we are not able to distinguish their differences. As the British Society of Gerontology clearly suggested ‘…many people in this age group are fit, well, and playing an active role in society.”

Older people participate in paid work, run businesses, volunteer, are active in civil society and the cultural life of communities, and take care of family members including parents, spouses/ partners, adult children (especially those living with disabilities), and grandchildren. There are currently more than 360,000 people over 70 in paid work, including one in seven men between 70 and 75 and one in 16 women.

Almost one million people over the age of 70 provide unpaid care, including one in seven women in their 70s.

One in five people aged between 70 and 85, over 1.5 million people, volunteer in their communities.

So, who are they but us? Where are they but all around us? A demographic category that not only needs health or safety, but also wants to have fun, consume, appear, travel. In other words, to live. Are they the new humans of this new world? In reality they are the same as before, as they have always been. It would be enough just to recognise them as individuals of this same society. If we ever will be able to.

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