Coronavirus is exposing America's contempt for old age
The scene: an outdoor St. Patrick's Day party in Kingston, Ontario, packed with college students willfully ignoring advice to self-isolate to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The speaker: a young woman decked in holiday colors. "I have a compromised immune system," she says, "but I'm still only 21, but I'm not even worried because I take supplements and, like, I self-medicate, so it's fine."
— Kraig Krause (@KrauseKraig) March 14, 2020
It's not fine. For one thing, COVID-19 can be plenty bad for younger people — just because the elderly are more at risk does not mean we are not at risk (and avoiding death does not preclude long-term lung damage).
But the flippancy this woman will no doubt rue having exhibited on camera is not only unfortunate for her personal health. She may survive a coronavirus infection unscathed but pass it on to someone who cannot. There is a selfishness and unconcern for the elderly in the refusal of the young to take this pandemic seriously. It evinces an ugly disrespect for old age which the coronavirus has revealed anew.
Lest it seem unjust to diagnose a whole society on the strength of a single person's comment, I grant that her attitude is not universal. At this level, it's probably a minority perspective, and displays like this have been balanced by widespread calls to protect the elderly.
But neither is she an outlier. Similar St. Patrick's Day partying continued in cities including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, Seattle, and Washington. A Cincinnati megachurch pastor named Brian Tome came under criticism for a video to congregants in which he swigged Corona beer and suggested young people have no reason to worry. "I'm not saying people aren't dying, but they tend to be very old people," Tome said. "You're going to be okay." Beaches in Florida, a state with a large population of retirees, have been swarmed with spring breakers who went ahead with their vacations despite the pandemic. The same was true of South Padre Island in Texas until the city on Monday declared a state of emergency and banned large gatherings. "We tell everybody: 'Wash your hands, don't stand too close to each other, wear condoms' — you know, the usual," said Clayton Brashear, a local business owner. "But these kids don't listen."
To be fair to "these kids," their disregard for the elderly is not really their own invention. It did not appear in a cultural vacuum. Western cultures in general and American culture in particular tend to prize youth over age, vigor over wisdom. We have lost the traditions of reliance on the experience of elders which other cultures have preserved. We're comparatively willing to outsource care of our parents and grandparents to professionals — multigenerational households are making a comeback because of economic pressures and demographic changes, not because the white majority (which remains least likely to have this living arrangement) suddenly decided it's important to keep your elders around.
A curious corollary of this cultural distaste for old age is the elderly's failure to recognize it in themselves and take precautions accordingly. "It's become clear to me through a variety of interactions," noted New York Times opinion writer and former contributor at The Week Elizabeth Bruenig, "that one of the hard conversations we're going to have to have during this pandemic is, 'Yes, you are old.' A lot of older people don't feel 'old' and don't see themselves as high risk." Her tweet and others like it have been deluged with replies of similar experiences. "My 68-year-old mother signed up for a group that was 'delivering meals to at-risk old people,'" said one. "My mom and her friends are 70 and thought the warning for elderly people didn't apply to them," said another.
Some of this may be that our perceptions of age change as we grow older, that delayed retirement can prolong a sense of middle age, and that our growing population of elderly people simply don't see in themselves the markers of old age they saw in their grandparents' generation.
But some of it, I think, is a natural aversion to finding in oneself a quality we have eschewed in others. If old age is seen predominantly as a time of decline, indignity, and dependence instead of rest and wisdom, its avoidance will come almost by instinct. I suspect aging well has always been difficult — the evangelist Billy Graham, who lived to be 100, once remarked that he'd been taught how to die, but never "how to grow old" — yet surely our time and place makes it uniquely challenging.
"Growing old is a strange thing, so strange that we often have difficulty in believing it can reach us as it does others," mused French historian and philosopher André Maurois in An Art of Living. The very same may be said of pandemic. So for young and old alike, as the novel coronavirus spreads, the task at hand is to see and minister to the vulnerabilities from which our culture has trained us to avert our eyes.