Please don’t tag me vulnerable

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During Covid-19, those over 70 have been defined as ‘vulnerable’. Tamahere’s Venetia Sherson, 72, says there are dangers in defining vulnerability solely on the basis of chronological age …   

When my mother was well into her eighties, she read to the elderly at a rest home in Te Aroha.

It seemed incongruous since she herself was older than many in the audience. If that point was raised, she would say, “You are only as old as you feel.” She never said how old she felt. A fiercely independent English woman, who had survived the blitz in London, and widowhood at 40, she abhorred any show of weakness or dependency. She died, six months before her 90th birthday.

Venetia Sherson was raised with a “get back on the horse” attitude (Photo: Life & Leisure)

As one of her three daughters, I was raised with the same “get-back-on-the-horse” attitude. We all rode ponies, and even after a bad fall, I remember her asking me, “Can you get back on?” In her late fifties, she came a similar cropper riding a temperamental mare that bolted during a hunt near Waihi. As I watched, white-faced, a fellow hunter dismounted and took a hip flask from his pocket administering a swig of brandy. Within minutes, she was back in the saddle. I watched in awe and with some pride. She seemed invincible. I now know the wrongness of that. But as I move into my seventies, I find myself in sympathy with her attitude about age-related stigmatism and the term “vulnerable,” which, if used inappropriately – and too widely – can affect how we regard and treat people simply on the basis of their age.    

Those who would protect us from the wretched Covid-19 have rightly defined certain groups as “vulnerable”. They include those who are immuno-compromised, have respiratory disease and other medical conditions. Those aged over 70 (although sometimes that is over 60) are also on the list. There is nothing to dispute here. One of the most recognized consequences of aging is a decline in immune function. While older people are by no means immunodeficient, they often do not respond efficiently to novel or previously encountered antigens. It is also true that the death rate for those infected with Covid-19 is much higher (21 per cent) for those aged over 80 than any other age group. The next highest group, aged 70-79, is 8 per cent. It would be reckless to deny the evidence of those most at risk of serious illness and death during this pandemic.

My beef is not the Covid-19 high risk categories, but that we should be cautious in applying the word “vulnerable” to older people per se, which risks erroneous assumptions and stigmatisation, which can itself reinforce vulnerability. I do not, for example want to be regarded as a silly old codger because I slipped and injured myself while walking the Tongariro Crossing, when the cause was not my feebleness but loose scoria, which trips up young and old. I do not want people saying, “Isn’t she remarkable, still hiking at her age,” when there is no physical impediment to that activity.

Venetia Sherson
Tamahere’s Venetia Sherson: “don’t assume we are vulnerable just because of age.” (Photo: Noted)

A few years ago, I was offered the opportunity to ride a Kaimanawa stallion, named Tuki. I hadn’t ridden for some years and the horse was far loftier than me. It felt briefly strange and then entirely comfortable. I remembered, as a child, hunting with men aged in their sixties and seventies who soared over jumps as we tried to run a hare to ground. We never questioned whether that was age-appropriate behaviour.

But Covid has brought with it aspects of paternalism, a sort of “I-know-what’s best-for you” concern, which left unchecked could lead to a naturalisation of the concept by suggesting it is a normal state to be helpless or feeble at a certain age. A friend close to my age went to her local grocery before the Level 4 lockdown. The owner told her kindly, “Go home lady; get someone else to do your shopping.” She was touched. But slightly rattled. Her grey hair had defined her. She enjoys robust health and is itching to get back to work and regular Pilates classes. She, like me, is concerned when people are allowed to return to their normal routines post lock-down, those aged over 70 (or 60), will still be urged to stay home and stay safe while living lesser lives.

It is well-recognised that every generation has more in common with its cohort than with other generations. But that does not suggest we should all be defined by the same broad banners. Research published in Bioethics, an online discussion forum on ethical questions, argues “old age should not, in and of itself, be used as a marker of vulnerability, since aging is a process that can develop in a variety of ways and is not always associated with particular experiences of vulnerability.” Put another way, chronological age cannot be a criterion for determining fitness, health, or intellectual interests. My parents’ generation was happy to retire at 60. My husband retired last year; a month shy of turning 77. As Boomers, we have celebrated our ongoing fitness and lengthy contributions to the workforce. As a feminist, I value and am thankful for my independence. I certainly do not want to be diminished in stature by being spoken to as though I’m deaf (I’m not) gaga or an infant. Studies have shown that belittling forms of address, such as “dear” when referring to an older person can have health consequences, especially if people mutely accept the attitudes behind them. “Those insults can lead to more negative images of aging,” Dr Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, told the New York Times. “And those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival.”

Venetia Sherson picking Italian
olives on one of her WWOOFing trips

Of course we know people age differently depending on their genes, their lifestyles and luck. Those struck by age-associated syndromes such as frailty or dementia need care and protection. People can also be vulnerable in regard to one aspect of their abilities, but not in others. But the assumption that we all need special protection is an insult.

Before her death, aged 94, last year, English philosopher Mary Warnock, wrote in The Guardian, “I believe I am as capable as any other householder of detecting a bogus offer from a cowboy builder or a fraudulent telephone call offering me the chance to win millions of pounds. That is a matter of education and common sense, not of age.” She added, “I’m certain that I’m not the only old person who does not want to be pitied or patronised but left to get on with life on my own, until that becomes impossible.” Here Here.

When we emerge from the Covid lockdown, my hope is that we in our seventies, eighties and beyond, who still live independent lives and class ourselves as sound in mind and body, can reclaim our status as productive and engaged citizens alongside other generations. We are increasing in numbers so the longer we can fend for ourselves and contribute to our upkeep, the better for everyone. When the time comes that we do need special help from our families, friends and caregivers, we will embrace it and be grateful. We appreciate kind gestures, but please don’t assume we are vulnerable just because of our age.

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