Underlying Conditions? Ageism meets Multi-generational Mutuality

By Lynne Segal

Who’s looking after ‘Granny’? Just as importantly, who’s taking care of those busy minding the elderly?

One thing is certain, in the UK those who should have paid heed to these questions in the early days of the pandemic simply ignored them. Here, the NHS was forced to release older patients back into their care homes without first testing them for Covid-19. The result was a dramatic rise in deaths in care homes, well over 20,000 in all, including some of those caring for them. This was despite our government’s absurd claim to have thrown a ‘protective ring’ around care homes – an engulfing ‘ring of fire’, perhaps, with deaths within them in Britain ending up a shameful thirteen times higher than, for instance, the number of deaths in German care homes. Boris Johnson, heading up the ministry of misinformation, has even dared to blame care homes themselves for this calamity.

More telling again was the initial nonchalance greeting the deaths of these fragile elderly people, which were not even counted in government reports of daily Covid-19 deaths. These were largely preventable deaths, publicly ungrieved, an inevitable consequence of the scandal that has surrounded elderly social care for decades, and especially since 2010, with the draconian cuts to local government and subsequent enforced privatisation of care homes.

In Islington, I live two blocks from one such home, where within weeks two of the carers had died, along with several residents.

We heard nothing about it. Living in the heart of London, paid well under a living wage, the carers worked in conditions that were bound to produce this outcome – their lives and work as little valued as those of the aged population in their care. There were already 120,000 vacancies across the care home sector well before the pandemic. The savage spending cuts and very low wages – full-time care workers generally receive little over £16,000 annually – was soon exacerbated by care workers receiving no protective equipment from the government at the height of the pandemic, quickly meaning that another 30 per cent of carers were off sick. The true underlying conditions endangering the very old as Covid-19 struck was not so much respiratory or cardiac weakness as government complacency and neglect.

But what about the rest of us oldies, those like me, over 70, living in our own homes? We have been spending months in lockdown, never sure when, if ever, it will be safe to venture out again. Our ‘underlying medical conditions’, and I have several, make the pleasures and dangers of the big wide world feel ever more remote. Society must be protected from our potentially enhanced fragility, again especially in countries like Britain, where decades of austerity and underfunding of the NHS and other community resources leave any who are vulnerable in a perilous state.

Yet, only yesterday, we oldies were encouraged to consume and participate in the world just like others, of any age, routinely urged to stay forever young, or at least to don the trappings and attire to pretend we could. In the UK we had our own playful magazine, The Oldie, read by tens of thousands, celebrating the distinct, quirky, unpredictable differences among the aged. Ageing women, once securely purged from Western media, except to trigger horror or distress (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) were even sometimes allowed out for some jaunty fun on the silver screen – where previously, and still predominantly, only old men had lingered. Walt Disney’s TV sitcom The Golden Girls in the 1980s was emblematic of shifting times, its older actors having the high-spirited time of their lives. But this was only one depiction of the jovial, strictly self-reliant oldie. It could be quickly flipped to reveal its gerontophobic underbelly: the enduring, sometimes mounting, fear and disdain towards oldies not managing to play the game of living agelessly. Here, we find routine lamentations about the ‘silver tsunami’ of pensioners, claiming the benefits their working lives had paid into. Some of us could indeed could still contribute to profits from our consumption, but most of us were no longer active producers of wealth, and hence less valuable for generating it.

Whenever trouble struck, old people have been routinely scapegoated for subsequent suffering. We would be held responsible for the effects of shrinking welfare budgets and dwindling public resources impacting on so many, especially the young. Mounting ageism swiftly followed the financial crash of 2007-8 – a direct consequence of the fiscal gambling of deregulated capital enabled by states that had been seduced by the neoliberal logic of unrestrained market growth. Perversely, the supposed greed of ‘baby-boomers’, not the obscene wealth of corporate billionaires, was blamed by reigning conservative governments – soon a cover for the grotesquely uneven effects of further austerity.

So too today, with vulnerable older people more at risk of Covid death, out it rolls again – a careless ageism. Occasionally, it appeared in the mainstream press, with one editor at the Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Warner, suggesting the possible economic gain of Covid-19 in “disproportionately culling elderly dependents”. The similarly retrograde Toby Young agreed that the potential death of thousands of old people could be seen as “acceptable collateral damage”. Such blatant ageism was quickly dismissed by most, yet as we’ve seen in the early weeks of the government’s pandemic strategy it was clear that the desire was to protect the economy, initially unworried by the deaths of dependent old people.

Yet, from early on, something else was also evident. With the mushrooming of mutual aid, some elderly people suddenly felt less isolated and neglected. In most areas, there were people making graphs of where the elderly live, knocking on their doors and asking whether there was anything they needed. I think some of those old ideas about generational conflict have been shaken up in the rupture created by Covid. Moreover, we have come to appreciate our care workers and all essential workers, as rarely before. We have seen how powerful caring can and should be in dangerous times, with care and all its challenges no longer regarded as just a private concern, one recently increasingly geared to profit making.

Thus, we have a space to use this moment to suggest how urgently change is needed, whether to protect each other, our common resources, or the planet itself. Yet, it’s also instructive to reflect back on the AIDS crisis, and how much heroism, connectedness and concern for others it created in the gay community. But this quickly dissipated once there was effective treatment for HIV/AIDS. So, it will surely be hard to hold on to that sense of mutual aid and connectedness that has been growing over the last few months. I know that the lessons of history might also lead us to conclude that things will soon return to how they were before, particularly under this Tory government. Yet, we also know, there’s going to be a long period of profound economic crisis. So, the need to keep mobilising mutual care and support will remain.

It will take a mighty battle to stop things shifting back to the careless normal, but the only hope for our times, wherever we look, will be for young and old together to use this ongoing rupture to secure new dreams of radical care and mutuality.

Lynne Segal is the author of several books. Her latest Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy is published by Verso.