Dystopian Literature often focuses on the concept that elderly people in an ordered authoritarian society will be required to accept that a day will come when they must lay down their lives. For example, in “The Fixed Period” by Trollope, the inhabitants of Britannica near New Zealand legislate that at 67 years old, citizens should move to a place to the College for one final happy year before their lives are terminated.
We would never go that far would we? And yet in the midst of the pandemic an ugly attitude towards death and aging has been exposed. How many times have we heard people argue that the pandemic primarily affects elderly people with those dying already having exceeded life expectancy and therefore it is not an issue for the young. Those putting forward this view have suggested alternatively at various times that either we should simply accept that some old people will die as the cost of keeping society open and the economy running, or that we should focus on protection for the elderly and vulnerable whilst allowing younger people to go on with their daily lives hopefully building up herd immunity.
I’ve asked people proposing the latter position what exactly they mean by protecting the vulnerable and the elderly. They rarely seem to have much idea what they mean by the phrase. It sounds good in theory but in fact I get the impression that it boils down to requiring people based on identification of particular health conditions or an arbitrary age limit to go into long term self-isolation, staying in their home or room and relying on others to bring food to their door before scurrying away.
The position seems to rest on a number of misunderstandings. First of all, it seems to assume that our elderly and vulnerable are already in some way separated out from the rest of society perhaps already with all of them living in care homes, retirement villages and Bournemouth. That would make things simple wouldn’t it but actually, many older people continue to live in their own homes in neighbourhoods likes yours and mine or even in multi-generational households. Meanwhile classifying who exactly is vulnerable does not seem to be an exact science. I expected to get a note to say I was vulnerable and should self-isolate at the start due to having asthma but the consensus seems to be that the danger is greater not to those with long term respiratory conditions but to other health issues such as poor kidney function. Now, here’s the thing we haven’t really picked up on yet. One side affect of the illness appears to be a decline in kidney function. If the illness attacks the kidneys and natural immunity is only 4 or 5 months then there may well be a whole group of people who were not vulnerable first time round but may be more vulnerable to a second does.
Secondly, it seems to assume that there is some kind of fixed point when people should expect to die and therefore their deaths are less distressing to loved ones. I think this involves a bit of a misunderstanding about how life expectancy works. It almost treats it as a fixed ceiling rather than a variable median or mean. Sure, on average, people may expect to live to around 81-82 but that does not mean that the average age is the factor to consider with individuals. My sister for example might consider herself short changed if she makes it to the grand old age of 80. The women in our family have had a habit of living well into their 90s. Meanwhile if I get into my mid 70s I’ll have done significantly better than both my granddads. Life expectancy is a consequence of genetics and general health not an average number.
Christians may of course point to the limits God sets in the Bible first at 120 years and then at 70 years. It is possible that the 120 years was a time limit on a specific generation, the period until the flood would come but three score years and ten does seem to look to apply to individual ages. It is worth noting however that even within the Bible that is not a cut off point, people live longer lifes, people live shorter lives. This has proved true throughout history. It does not seem to be a fixed cut off point but a general rule of thumb.
Linked to this is I believe a view that whilst we would not support active killing (euthanasia) that this does not require us to actively prolong life, especially artificially. This is a reasonable position and one I share in principle. I would not expect “heroics” if I fell ill in later life and would be happy with a DNR notice. However, I think this is slightly different. If we structure society in such a way that our older people either catch a virus and die when that was preventable or experience the living death of isolation then we are moving from choosing not to prolong towards enabling death.
Finally, I’ve noticed some assumptions about what life is like to be elderly and this has fallen into two categories. I’ve seen some working with the assumption that our older generations are being kept alive by medication with little quality of life. This may well be affected by personal experiences if they have watched a relative experience prolonged suffering prior to death. However, many older people remain active and relatively healthy well into their later years.
Conversely, there seems to be an assumption that older members in our communities who just stay home will be able to see out the virus as though that is the only risk to their health. There will be and will have been other reasons for an older person to seek urgent medical treatment and if we had let COVID rip through society this would not have been possible without them coming into contact with a carrier of the virus.
Now, at times it has seemed that we have experienced the worst of all worlds. We have experienced prolonged lock downs where our elderly people have been very isolated but at the same time the younger generations have been severely restricted too. However, at least there have been periods when they have been able to get out and about and even now, with care an older person can get to the shops and to church.
However, the experience hasn’t been good overall and the jury is out on its effectiveness. Personally I favoured strict measures at the start, quarantining at the borders, better protection of our care homes and if necessary short sharp and total lockdowns for specific regions and neighbourhoods. I personally believe that such measures could have had a drastic effect on the virus here though I also understand why they did not happen. At the same time, in the period when the virus was present but controlled, I would have expected people of all ages to accept a level of precaution to get through the pandemic together. If being able to see elderly and medically vulnerable friends and relatives continue to take part fully in society requires me to wear a face mask in shops, keep 2 metres distant, prioritise outdoor meet ups and forego singing in church (which may be a great blessing in church) for a short period in my overall life, then I do not see that as a heavy burden.
My concern is not just about what actively happens to older and medically vulnerable people. It’s not just a case of how many will die from COVID. Rather, it is the risk of a growing culture of death where the constant message people hear is that at an arbitrary point they will be considered of no value to society. That is only a small step away from people being expected to take a walk in the cold or to go to a special room and take a pill.
The Gospel offers a culture of life and we Christians of all people should love and value the older members in our community. If those days and years from 70 upwards count as extra grace then it is more to us than to them. It is we who benefit from their joy in life, hope in the Lord, wisdom patience and kindness. Our lives, churches and communities are enriched by their presence. Let’s not allow our society to start seeing those in later life as an inconvenience but as a blessing.