Ageism in Normal Times Gets Worse During Pandemic, According to Beersheba Researchers

Since the elderly comprise the majority – but far from all – of patients hospitalized with serious COVID-19 infection, they probably are “blamed” by younger people for the repercussions of the pandemic, including economic catastrophe, lockups and unemployment. 

Now, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have found that while the elderly in Israel feel they are viewed by the rest of the population as more vulnerable due to the pandemic, they themselves do not feel like a “burden” on the society. 

 

The team, led by Dr. Ella Cohn-Schwartz, a faculty member of the gerontology program in the public health department at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev, recommends maintaining close ties between family members and the elderly. The study was conducted in collaboration with Prof. Liat Ayalon of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and published in the prestigious Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Psychological and Social Sciences under the title “Societal Views of Older Adults as Vulnerable and a Burden to Society During the COVID-19 Outbreak: Results from an Israeli nationally representative sample.” 

“In 2016, the World Health Organization embarked on a global campaign to combat ageism with the goal of changing the way we think, feel and act towards people because of their age. Four years later, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, ageism became ever more prominent in the global discourse,” the authors wrote.

More than half of Israeli elderly live with their spouses and maintain frequent contact with family and friends throughout the period. There are several reasons for them feeling that they are perceived as a “burden” on Israeli society. One is discriminatory treatment by medical care providers on the basis of their age – ageism. Some providers preferred to talk to younger family members rather than with them; they also felt they were treated by them as “less smart” because of their age.

 

The other factors were a weak personal relationship with family members, living alone, having less frequent contact with relatives and anxiety about old age and death. One common theory is that ageism stems from people’s fear of death and dying. “As older adults remind us of our own mortality, we attempt to distance ourselves from them and might hold more ageist attitudes towards older people to protect ourselves from the discomfort involving frailty and sickness associated with older age,” they wrote. “Hence, we expect that individuals with higher dying anxiety might also believe others are distancing themselves from older adults.”

 

In contrast, they wrote, “social contact is expected to be associated with lower perceived ageism. A recent review found intergenerational contact to be highly effective in reducing people’s ageist attitudes. Specifically, individuals with more intergenerational contact are more likely to report non-ageist views that portray older and younger people as belonging to the same community. On the other hand, the division between young and old people in society is thought to promote ageist attitudes and animosity between the generations. Social contact with friends and family might also have an ageism-reducing effect and lead older adults to perceive society in general as less ageist.”

Elderly participants in the study who believed they were perceived as a burden during the COVID-19 outbreak suffered from more anxiety about death and reported more age-based discrimination. 

Cohn-Schwartz said that it was vital for relationships with family members to be maintained and especially for young people to be encouraged to talk to the elderly, as this has a “huge positive impact” on them. In addition, managers and employees of health systems must remember that they have the ability to influence to change minds and behavior and that it was important to treat the elderly with respect and seriousness when providing medical care. 

The study was based on a survey conducted among 888 Israelis aged 50 and over during the first closure, from mid-March to early May 2020. 

Participants who believed older adults were perceived as a burden during the COVID-19 outbreak had higher dying anxiety and reported more age-based discrimination. 


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