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‘Coffin dodger,’ ‘boomer remover’ — ageism has flared during the pandemic

Research suggests efforts to keep seniors safe may also have put them in the path of generational conflict

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Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you look closely at the lives of your friends and their families, you’ll find examples of how important older adults are to their loved ones and their communities.

I can easily cite examples of grandparents providing daycare so their adult children can work, or seniors who help their kids and grandkids financially. I know lots of folks in their 60s and 70s and even older who still work and others who retired, then found it boring and got jobs or started volunteering on a regular basis. People well into their so-called “golden years” care for spouses and often for younger relatives, including not just small children but adults with disabilities or medical conditions.

My friend Maggie is gone now. But if you want an example of healthy old age, she was swimming regularly until she was 99 (her driver reportedly got too old to get her to the community pool) and took care of herself in her own home until she was 106, with the exception of tasks that required driving. She was healthier at her century mark than many half or even a third her age. Obviously, she was unusual. But she illustrates a very important point:

People who are older are diverse in their skills, their outlook, their health and their activities. They make varied contributions to their families and their communities.

It hardly strikes me as remarkable that when health care providers were overrun during the pandemic in New York and Florida, older residents who had retired from medical careers were invited to join the medical battle against COVID-19. They responded by the tens of thousands, according to the American Psychological Association. And they had the training and skills to help.

We believe Supreme Court justices can serve for life and show great respect and affection for the aged leaders of many faiths.

We don’t all age the same. So it seems remarkable to me that in a country whose political process selected two men well into their 70s to run for its highest office — presumably one of its most important jobs — ageism has been so apparent during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Many discussions about the virus and health care rationing devalue older adults’ lives as unworthy or a reasonable ‘sacrifice,’” the association wrote in May. The Hastings Center has documented a “virulent resurgence of ageism” as if older lives have no joy or meaning.

Nor is that ageism only apparent when it comes to discussing who gets what in terms of medical care should such decisions be required.

Research published in the Journals of Gerontology in July noted that “name-calling, blame and ‘so-be-it’ reactions toward age vulnerability were commonplace” not just in America, but also in the United Kingdom and Australia. Researcher Bronwen Lichtenstein of the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa said public ageism in all three countries “erupted over the social and economic costs of protecting older adults from COVID-19.”

Those dismissive of the lives of older people have at times used phrases like “coffin dodger” to describe them. Wrote Lichtenstein, “Terms such as ‘boomer remover,’ ‘boomer doomer,’ ‘YOLO grandparents,’ ‘grey shufflers’ and ‘moldy oldies’ illustrate the degree to which older people were denigrated in COVID-19-related postings and (occasionally) news sources analyzed for this brief.”

There’s no question that deaths from COVID-19 have been highest among those who are older, though not necessarily so much because of age, as because of medical issues some have collected.

The death counts, while higher among the oldest people, don’t say how many that age survived, either. It’s easy to overlook that many older adults are extraordinarily healthy or that many younger people are not necessarily healthy, given the high number who grapple with excess weight and various medical conditions.

When groups start to rely on catchy though cruel nicknames for people who have lived long enough to be the target of such witlessness, other, more important names — and relationships — get overlooked: Mom. Dad. Grandma. Grandpa. Sweetheart. Mentor. Survivor. Teacher. Doctor. Friend.