Let the Old Die? – A Point of View

Suggesting culling the elderly at a time of financial or other crisis now seems an assured route to notoriety for someone seeking attention in the media or elsewhere. So, it is no surprise that this suggestion has again reared its ugly head in the current Coronavirus pandemic.

I must immediately declare an interest in this subject. At 66 years of age, I am not yet ready to be put out to grass, much less below it. Nevertheless, I am considered old and therefore in the seemingly expendable category of the population. ‘Age 65 and over’ appear to be the accepted defining line for when one becomes old. The importance of differentiating people into further age groups after this age seems to be regarded as less worthwhile, perhaps because 65 was the male retirement age and, hence, when most people ceased to be perceived as productive and economically valuable.

COVID-19 has added new significance to what it means to be old.

Anecdotally, it means that your place in the queue for an ambulance may be way down the line, your chances of getting ventilated if you develop respiratory problems with multimorbidity is diminished (Guardian, 2020) and, if you live in a retirement or care home, then you might be waiting for a long time to welcome family and friends from the outside. (Gov UK, 2020)

I am fitter than most of my age, achieving a regular first place in my local parkrun for my age group. I have been attending “body attack” and “body tone” classes for over 30 years and my ability to hold my own against similar people in my age group in a 10K race is without question. In 2017, at age 64, I was the age group winner in the Birmingham 10K.

Therefore, you might begin to understand my frustrations when I see headlines suggesting ‘let old people die ’.

COVID-19 has seen age discrimination rise to new and frenzied heights.

Even more saddening, I have heard and seen a number of older people say they have had their time, and therefore, the limited ventilators should go to the young. Such is the burden many older people are beginning to feel they are on society. When a surgery requests individuals to make a decision on signing a ‘do not attempt CPR’ clause (Wales Online), I am even more concerned about our increasing acts of inhumanity.

How did we come to this position where the value of someone’s life is assessed by their age (to an extent that their capacity to benefit from medical intervention should be disregarded should they become ill)?

Perhaps naively, I was under the impression that, because of the growing body of intergenerational research showing the mutual benefits of intergenerational activities, we were slowly increasing the value given to the contribution of old people in our society, to recognize their experience, and to treasure the wisdom that comes with ageing.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, all individuals 70 and over have been advised to self-isolate to shield themselves from social contact for around 12 weeks. When health guidance is founded on age rather than an individual’s capacity, how far should we support the policy makers in the guidance they issue?

When are we going to challenge the view that older people can be told “you have had your time, now it is time for the younger people to have theirs”? Who are we allowing to make the decisions and the choices over whether we live or you die?

As it happens, having experienced a cold, reduced smell and taste, despite no cough or shortness of breath, I think I may have had COVID-19. I have never been tested or even offered the opportunity to have one. I am aware that should I become ill, the question of my access to a ventilator may be questioned. Whilst I might sometimes choose to self-isolate and even welcome occasional solitude, when the choice of when and where is taken from me because of my age, and society is signalling to me loud and clear that I am a drain on resources, then I must be troubled

When resources are limited, informed choice about individual’s capacity to benefit has to be made.

During a time of crisis, making considered and effective choice is difficult. Therefore, as stakeholders, we need to take time to deliberate on emergency situations long before they arise. Let’s take heed of Rupali and Angira Patel’s guidance and develop effective response systems based on agreed values for when, because of undue pressures, we might make spur-of-the-moment decisions that we could come to regret.


© 2020 Melrose Stewart
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