Buddha states that “The value of life is not based on how long we live but how much we contribute to others in our society” If this is really the case then we can never undermine or lessen the importance of the elderly. Nor can we diminish the value of their life, which is reflected in what they have achieved in a lifetime, be it through raising families, having a profession or personal milestones.
It is with this quote as a backdrop that I write this short article. Unfortunately during these times of COVID, we are hearing mostly of elderly who die because of this virus. We know that people of all ages can be infected by the virus but it is especially dangerous for older people. In fact according to the New York Times, less than 1% of patients under the age of 50 died with the coronavirus disease in China, but it was fatal for nearly 15% of those who were over the age of 80.
However this reality also brought with it what I see as the desensitization of a population towards these virus related elderly deaths, with words like “Oh but he was old” or the famous “but she had other underlying conditions”. We hear the numbers of COVID sufferers every day and with that sometimes comes the announcement of someone that died. We hear it and we go on with what we are doing. Is little thought given to this death because at the end of the day he/she was considered elderly? If the person was young, a child even, would we stop? Would we question our behavior and do things right because if the young were dying, we fear it happening to our children, our friends, our brothers or sisters? Would we do more if persons dying were not elderly? I have a feeling that all these questions, if answered sincerely, would be answered in the affirmative.
This type of thought process has caused ageism to raise its ugly head again. In reality, a life lost is a life lost no matter the age, ethnicity, gender and so on. Every elderly person has a story and a family that will grieve them. Families who during the last hours were not able to be with their loved ones, many a time, not even getting the chance to say goodbye. There is no solace for those left behind. Their mother or father had suffered all their lives with issues like heart failure, diabetes or respiratory disorders but it never killed them. The truth is that COVID did. To try to say anything else is demeaning to that very life and the grief it leaves behind it for those they leave behind.
We must see beyond this mentality. We must recognize the danger that such a mentality can have, even if indirectly, on the population. It is conveying the message that elderly lives do not matter. It gives a message that some lives are worth more than others. It gives the wrong message that it is ok to go on with our lives normally because it’s the elderly who are dying and they have underlying causes. The message is wrong on all levels. It gives some people a laisse faire attitude towards the precautions needed to take to decrease spread of the virus. It makes the young feel that they are invincible and will not get it and an egocentric mentality that as long as I am healthy then I do not care if I get it as I will survive it.
I say this because if we did really care and we really valued the lives which the virus has taken to date, then we would not take the precautions needed so lightly. People still seem to struggle to understand what social distancing is all about. Masks are worn wrongly or not at all. Some seem to think that it’s a neck accessory and are wearing it because they have to and not because they believe in it. Hand hygiene still needs to be reminded and is sometimes hurriedly done with no thought to technique or timing. If we really thought that this virus could kill, I do not think we would take things so lightly.
So whenever you think whether to wear a mask, or are tempted not to keep social distancing. Whenever you do not feel like spending 20 seconds cleaning your hands. Whenever you hear the statistics on the radio and God forbid the news of another death, just stop and think of the life you could save by doing what you should do and the value that life had for the person and to their loved ones. The elderly who pass away should never be just COVID numbers. Behind every number is a person and a family. They have spent their lives protecting us, be it in war, or as parents or grandparents, it is time that during their last years we protect them.
“To care for those who once cared for us is one of the biggest honours”
Ms. Charmaine Attard