Until the past week or so, I’ve rarely thought of myself as old, at least not in the diminishing way the word is often used.
I work a full-time job, walk 5 miles a day, go to the gym, teach yoga to young theater students and climb three flights of stairs to my condo several times a day. I never kid myself that age is only in the mind — the mirror won’t allow that delusion — but I don’t feel old in the way my younger self construed the word.
I’m guessing a lot of people my age — I’m 66 — would say the same. We joke about getting old. We know we have more years behind us than we have ahead. Still, we’re energetic and engaged and hoping to stay that way a while.
But every day since COVID-19 began its sneak attack across the land, people in their 60s and older are summoned to think about how old we really are.
To begin with, we confront the fact that our age puts us in a high-risk category. The warnings come at us daily: People over 60! Caution! Caution! Caution!
Sure, there are perks. We’re now eligible for senior hour at the grocery store and “elderly and vulnerable” hour at Binny’s Beverage Depot. But these small advantages (which I haven’t yet used) further remind us that, welp, 60 may not be the new 40 after all.
“For all of us 60-somethings who exercise daily and have eaten healthy our entire lives, this feels like an unimaginable affront to our entire self-image,” says my friend Nancy. “It is as if we don’t know who we are anymore. We don’t have our identities as the generation that rebelled against their own parents’ lifestyle and became a new type of 60 or 70 or 80.”
To be clear: Older people with an underlying health condition seem to be at more risk than those without. People over 70 seem to be at higher risk than people in their 60s. And, yes, it gets clearer by the day that young people aren’t immune.
But no matter how you parse the numbers, being 60 and beyond makes you more vulnerable in this crisis. And the vulnerability isn’t only to the virus. It’s to dangerous ageist attitudes.
Not long ago, as the virus began its invasion, the mocking meme “Boomer Remover” started going around on social media. I laughed the first time I saw it because, really, by the time you’re old, you gotta laugh at stuff.
But as the number of infections and deaths rises, the virus has stirred a disregard for older people that isn’t funny.
President Donald Trump (age 73) has started talking of reopening businesses soon to save the economy, despite the health toll it would almost certainly take. The lieutenant governor of Texas (age 69) echoed Trump’s view on Fox News, talking of his willingness to sacrifice his survival so his children and grandchildren can inherit the America he loves.
Frankly, a lot of us old folks probably would sacrifice our survival for the younger people if that would save them and the country from apocalypse. But that’s a phony conceit.
On Tuesday, as the hashtag #notdyingforwallstreet was trending on Twitter, Walter Shaub (age 49), former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, put it this way: “Those arguing for us to sacrifice the old, the fragile and the random youth for their profits are convinced their health insurance and conveniences of wealth will save them. If profits really were more important than lives, they’d offer their own lives. Instead, they offer yours.”
Yet ageism in the age of coronavirus runs deep. A couple of days ago, I passed one of my neighbors, younger than I am, on the sidewalk. As we stood 6 feet apart and talked, he said we might just have to accept that a lot of old people are going to die, and so be it, if that’s what it takes to keep the economy strong.
Maybe he noticed my raised eyebrow because he added that maybe he feels that way because both of his parents have died and he doesn’t feel a personal stake in the survival of older people.
But he does have a personal stake. Every generation has a stake in the others.
That’s why the older folks among us, especially the healthy ones, need to do right in this crisis. If we can, we need to make a financial contribution to a charity, a struggling business, a needy individual. We need to heed the stay-at-home orders. We need to listen to the concerns of younger people and consider how else we might help.
Young people, meanwhile, have a personal stake in the handling of this crisis that goes beyond next week or next month. The decisions made now will shape the future of our country and the world, not only economically but morally. These decisions will send a signal about our decency and our humanity.
Young people, take it from your elders: Most of you will be our age one day, too, sooner than you can imagine, and you’ll be glad for a world where it’s understood that the problem is not young vs. old.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
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