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Could Appreciation of Old Age Go Viral?

One huge impact of this pandemic might just be a gradual integration of the positive qualities of elderhood into the rest of society.


In a March 18 opinion piece for Forbes titled “COVID-19: Now We All Know What It’s Like To Be Old & Alone,” Joseph Coughlin, Ph.D., director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, argues compellingly that in this time of pandemic, people of all ages who are not yet considered “old” are now experiencing some of the longtime daily challenges endured by their elders:

In the span of a few short days, millions of Americans of all ages have gone from our often-harried daily routines to living and working at home. Many of us are experiencing this change not as a liberating day off or a snow day, but as an anxiety producing semi- or full isolation. There is one silver lining to such an experience, however: It can serve as an exercise in empathy (albeit an imperfect one), permitting younger people to appreciate some of what many older adults go through every day — even on a good day, in the absence of pandemic disease.

He makes a legitimate point, and one that should be raised more often, given our culture’s pervasive ageism that underestimates, marginalizes, and most recently even vilifies older adults for living longer and for wanting those additional years to be quality ones.

That being said, I think we should also consider an intriguing flip side to our new coronavirus reality: One huge impact of this pandemic might just be a gradual integration of the positive qualities of elderhood into the rest of society.

In short, as we modify our behaviors, COVID-19 may be pushing many of us toward more empowered aging though a greater appreciation of the assets of old age.

There’s no doubt that these beginning days of extreme fear and uncertainty have magnified the longstanding view that a person’s later years involve solely processes of deterioration and decline. Overwhelmed, overstressed, and undersupplied doctors, nurses, and other hospital personnel are currently having to make and carry out gut-wrenching decisions as to which critical patients will receive life-saving treatment and which will die. Unfortunately, many people believe that a patient’s age rather than his or her medical condition should be the deciding factor in those circumstances.

That belief not only currently delegitimizes the right to grow old, it also endangers that right for future generations.

If we instead consider the unexpected positive ways in which our lives are having to change because of this insidious virus, we’ll see the benefits of embracing the values, skills, and attitudes most older adults already possess, and we’ll want to incorporate them into our own lives.

What are those benefits, exactly?

To begin with, we’re beginning to appreciate the value of in-person and tactile communication, everyday methods (in addition to postal mail and the telephone) that were more commonly used during the formative years of older generations before the development of computer technology. Although the majority of older adults are now online and using the Internet and smart phones regularly, in general they are also the most socially adept at in-person conversations than are younger generations, who may now begin to experience the emotional downside of physical distancing in ways all too familiar to their parents and grandparents.

Also, as shuttering ourselves in the same environment over the course of weeks (and most likely months) begins to get to us, increasing our levels of frustration, anxiety, and depression, we’re becoming more aware of the need to regulate our emotions so that we don’t succumb to negativity. Believe it or not, this skill most commonly found in the older adult brain is due to a natural physiological change that occurs over the process of many decades of living.

Another important characteristic of old age is a growing comfort with being in the present moment rather than preoccupying oneself with a lot of tasks. Because many of those tasks have been removed from our lives through a loss of work and/or the cancellation of social activities, we may find ourselves uncomfortable just sitting around doing nothing. But the kind of “being” I’m referring to is internally active: It’s the search for greater meaning and authenticity in one’s life. It’s the kind of life review that mid-20th-century developmental psychologist Erik Erikson called “integrity” (as in integration) ––– the fitting together of the parts of one’s life into a coherent whole. The need to do this self-examination becomes more powerful as people approach the last years of their lives. People who are not yet at that stage now have an unusual opportunity to take advantage of their physical inactivity to ask themselves what their lives have meant and who they’d like to be once this pandemic crisis is over.

The physical distance that COVID-19 has demanded of us has become a real and visceral phenomenon that engages people of every age, socioeconomic status, gender, race, ethnicity, and physical ability. Because we’re all susceptible to getting the virus, we’re all in this together, which means that our traditionally divisive negative stereotypes are becoming less valid. And becoming less valid, they may one day become irrelevant.

In the meantime, I’m hoping that through their own direct experience of the kinds of conditions regularly experienced by many older adults, those who are in midlife and younger may begin to appreciate some of the psychological traits of elderhood and, by extension, appreciate even more the people who best possess them.

Let’s hope that this, and not COVID-19, is what will go increasingly viral.


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