Column Description: The term Communitas refers to an unstructured community of equal members often traveling from one place to another. Like the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we are fellow pilgrims on the road towards the Father’s house, following Jesus as the way, truth, and life. This column is a space to share common ideas about faith, communication, and culture with the intent of affirming the image of God in all persons.
By Elizabeth McLaughlin,
Ph.D. Bethel University
COVID, Growing Old, and the Rhetoric of Aging
“Honor your father and your mother, that you may live long in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20: 1-2, NEB)
In May 2020, my mother, Carolyn, died from cancer at age 97. She lived in an assisted living facility, surviving my dad by seven years. In January 2020, she was hospitalized because she could not breathe and then placed in Hospice care. In March, I could not visit her; then in May, she was gone. We were very close, and it was excruciating that I could not visit. She did not understand why I wasn’t there. My mom was dying, and I could not see her until the very end.
An alarming report from the Oxford University Press confirmed the dismissive attitude towards elders manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparing newspaper and social media coverage from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Bronwen Lichtenstein performed a content analysis from April-July 2020, and found some disturbing rhetoric describing older adults and COVID-19. This “rhetoric of disposability” included terms like “Coffin-dodger,” “Boomer Doomer,” “Moldy Oldie,” and “Boomer Remover” to describe the elderly and the medical community discussion of who should live and die during the pandemic.
Echoing my mom’s experience, Lichtenstein cited the policies of social isolation of the elderly by stopping visits from family and friends. This “us” and “them” rhetoric indicated that COVID-19 is an elder issue. A second theme of making elders stay home and away from everyone weighed heavily on older adults and their well-being. Discussions of “herd immunity” contributed to the notion that older people could be culled in resource rationing for the greater good.
Our national obsession with youth culture is well known, but how did we get here with the expendability of our parents and grandparents? Conflict between the generations is nothing new. So, how did this level of ageism happen? What are the narratives we share about getting older?
Growing older is almost a crime in our youth-obsessed culture with many degrading stereotypes for elderly people. Some of these stereotypes and images show that old age is something to be avoided as the body slows, loses its youthful vigor, and declines into illness and decrepitude; the mind drifts into forgetfulness and dementia; and the spirit freezes into bitterness and anger about what is lost. The millions spent on wrinkle creams, plastic surgery, and programs claiming to stop the aging process all testify to our denial and dread of getting older.
In his 2014 book Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper Life, Geriatrician Dr. William Thomas shared a poignant encounter that changed his perspective on older adults, as well as his life and vocation. While working as a part time physician at a nursing home, Thomas entered the room of an elderly woman who had a rash on her arm. While he was routinely telling the woman about the diagnosis, she grabbed his arm and pulled him down to her level. “She said, “I’m so lonely.” He went through his day as usual.
The doctor was moving from what Martin Buber describes in his book I and Thou as a perspective of just seeing a patient with a medical problem to solve (I-It) to a real person who needed his full attention and humanity, an (I-Thou) perspective. For the doctor, she transformed from one more thing on his to do list into a real human being.
“Later that night her image returned to me. I had seen . . . not the way a doctor sees a patient but rather as one human being sees another,” reported Thomas. “When I woke up the next morning, I knew I had to do something about the problem of loneliness.” From then on, Thomas started seeing his patients as human beings and began a reform movement called the Eden Alternative, an approach to make the quality of life better for elders.
Thomas uses key terms to describe baby boomers’ response to aging: “denialists” (those who deny they are aging and cling to youth) (pp. 114-122), and “realists” (who grimly cling to the things they can still do like a young person) (pp. 123-132). The third category are the countercultural “enthusiasts” who “are eager to explore life beyond adulthood because they believe this life phase contains far more development potential” (p. 133). This path offers hope for a fruitful future as aging people look forward to what is to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a deeply ingrained narrative of what a burden elders are to society weighed in the scales of utilitarianism and cost. Ironically, most of us will become a member of this marginalized group someday, whether we recognize it or not. The rhetoric we use today will affect us tomorrow. How can we change our perspective and what role do communicators play against ageism? Here are some questions to explore this concept.
- How do we feel about the elders in our lives? What terms, metaphors, and narratives do we use to describe them?
- How do we feel about our own aging? (Denialists? Realists? Enthusiasts?)
- How can we confront ageism when it appears in conversation, media, and in our families and workplaces?
- How can we recognize and include the wisdom and experiences of elders as fellow image-bearers who contribute to the greater good?
The Positive Psychology website offers information and perspective on positive aging including theories, facts, and videos. It is a helpful place to begin exploring these questions.
One great gift when my mom passed away was hearing from people how much she had influenced them: one to finish his education, another to expect more in her love life, and a third person who appreciated mom’s faith and encouragement. My mother was a woman fully alive even at the end and a great example for her daughter.
* Author bio: Elizabeth W. McLaughlin, Ph.D., professor of communication, has spent the past 20 years shaping young minds through teaching communication and writing at Bethel. She is known for integrating community outreach and real-world solutions into the classroom, and took that concept abroad last summer, when she helped lead a task force trip to France, using storytelling as a ministry tool.
Her recent book, “Women’s Voices of Duty and Destiny: Religious Speeches Transcending Gender,” released by Peter Lang Publishers, showcases 14 women leaders and their public speeches, motivated by religious values. It’s the first book in a series, Speaking of Religion, edited by Dann Brown, Ph.D., Grove City College, PA. The collection features women from different faith traditions, and geographical locations, addressing issues of human dignity from the 19th century through today.
Thank you for this excellent analysis, Elizabeth. The older lead pastor at my church similarly passed away, but from COVID, in April 2020. Nobody could visit, not even his sister. At that time and place in the pandemic, they did not even allow visitors when death was imminent and it has been excruciating over the months since for her. We just held his memorial service on Saturday (Sep. 18, 2021).