Ageism is real. It’s time we fought it.

Illustration by Danielle Bailey

We’re all tired of the coronavirus by now—ready to get back to our real lives. But even as restaurants and movie theaters, hair salons, and gyms reopen, there are some of us who will find it more difficult to carry on as before, and many who aren’t around even to try. For those of us over 65, simply going to the store can be terrifying. And the numbers justify that terror.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control show that through mid-June the overall cumulative hospitalization rate in the United States was 94.5 per 100,000 population. Among adults aged ≥65 years it was 286.9, or more than three times the overall rate. If you live in a nursing home, your chances of getting and dying from the coronavirus are even higher. The rates for African American seniors are almost three times as high as those for seniors overall.

While these numbers may bring terror to older people, they shouldn’t cause surprise. They’ve been accompanied by comments like those of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of Texas, who called for the reopening of Texas by saying that there are “more important things than living.” In March, Patrick callously said that he thought “lots of grandparents” would be happy to give up their lives to keep the country afloat economically. COVID-19 has simply exposed the ongoing callousness toward old people.

“Talk of age-based rationing also subtly reinforces the idea that shortages of equipment and other resources are inevitable, and that older people will ‘make way’ for more deserving patients,” wrote Nina Kohn in The Washington Post May 8. “In the absence of vocal objection, this reduces pressure on policymakers to pull out all the stops to provide such resources.”

Beyond COVID-19, older people in America have always been expendable, from Hollywood’s lack of decent roles for older women actors to public health’s calculation of a person’s value based on age. Life may begin at 40, but it definitely ends at 65, even if you’re not dead yet. And it’s not just among capitalists in the United States. Ageism exists on the Left as well (think “OK, boomer”).

Nursing homes are a problem-filled case in point. Although there are regulations on the books, they are often flouted, and when caught, nursing home proprietors (most of them for-profit) are typically given a slap on the wrist. A 2014 report by the Department of Health and Human Services found that “An estimated 22% of Medicare beneficiaries experienced adverse events during their [skilled nursing facilities] stays” and another 11% of Medicare recipients experienced “temporary harm” events. Physician reviewers found that some 59% of these events were “clearly or likely preventable” and could be attributed to “substandard treatment, inadequate resident monitoring, and failure or delay of necessary care.”

Ageism is not restricted to nursing homes, though it may be most obvious there. Everywhere in our culture we can see signs of it. Although one-third of U.S. residents are older than 50, 90% of marketing spending is aimed at people younger than that. And while there are laws on the books prohibiting age discrimination, it remains difficult for someone over 50 to get a job in many industries.

Citizens over 65 are eligible for Medicare, but it’s definitely not Medicare for All Health Needs. Hearing aids are not covered, for instance, nor is in-home long-term care. The AARP (American Association for Retired People) is supposed to be an advocate for older people, but one look at its website shows that it’s primarily in the business of selling supplemental insurance to cover gaps in Medicare. If you can’t afford the extra coverage, you’re out of luck.

What can we do to address these issues? First we must admit that ageism is an issue, even in our own ranks. Then we have to fight for changes in laws and culture to end ageism. In the 1970s, there was an advocacy group for old people called the Gray Panthers. Started by Maggie Kuhn, it successfully advocated for an end to forced retirement. While the group still exists, it is not nearly as visible as is needed.

Let’s remember that the changes we seek are not just for our parents or grandparents, but for everyone. If we’re lucky, old age will come to all of us.