COVID-19 Vaccine Has Helped Open Up The Conception Of Aging

By: Debra Lawless

Harwich resident Anna Bodo, 80, receives her COVID-19 vaccination. FILE PHOTO

When Karen McPherson’s husband qualified for the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations because he is six years her senior, McPherson thought back to the days of faking ID cards when she was not yet of age.

McPherson, who lives in Chatham, didn’t qualify for the first round of vaccine appointments that opened up in February because she was just three weeks shy of 75. As she joked to a friend, “I hadn’t faked an ID since I was 16 — they are so much harder to fake these days.” When McPherson turned 75, she scheduled herself for a vaccine — in Lowell, as it turned out, 125 miles from home.

McPherson, who is in the vanguard of the baby boom generation, which began in 1946, doesn’t shy away from telling you her age. Being older and admitting it is freeing, she says. “I always ask for ‘old peoples’ prices’ when at Dunkin’ or at the movies. It’s just fun.”

Yet due to a multiplicity of cultural reasons, people — especially women – have often lied about their age or refused to reveal their age, laughing off queries with “it’s only a number” or “I don’t want to be stereotyped.”

Aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, have cast all eyes on people’s ages. First, we learned that those 65 and older were at the greatest risk from severe illness and death from COVID-19. Next, the vaccines began to be doled out according to a system that ranks people’s eligibility primarily according to their age.

So, has the pandemic loosened up people’s conception of their ages, and perhaps made them more willing to admit to their true ages? Yes and no, say directors of the local councils on aging.

“I’d say I’ve noticed both a greater willingness among folks to acknowledge that their age qualifies them as a ‘senior’ as well as a reconceptualization of what it means to be a senior,” says Emily Mitchell, director of the Harwich Council on Aging.

In terms of redefining what it means to be a senior, the pandemic has challenged many assumptions, Mitchell says. “The societal notion of ‘seniors’ paints a picture of people who are not tech-savvy, frail, stagnant, and lonely or isolated. The pandemic has shown that older adults are resilient, adaptable, eager to learn new things and new technology, and able to find both new and traditional ways of connecting with family, friends and community.”

With the vaccines rolling out by age, and particularly with the challenges of scheduling a vaccine appointment, “we’ve seen many, many new people reaching out to us for this assistance,” Mitchell adds. “They are confidently identifying themselves as seniors and eager for help and information in accessing the vaccine.”

Mandi Speakman, director of the Chatham Council on Aging, notes that 306 “brand new people” came to the Chatham Senior Center between March 2020 and March 2021. The previous year, in contrast, saw 275 newcomers, an increase from the year before that.

“In a year when you thought there’d be less participation, it was the other way,” she says.

These people overcame the “stigma” of using the COA. And what does that stigma revolve around?

“It’s all about age and ageism,” Speakman says. People have consistent misperceptions of the COA, that it’s a place for “frail old people who sit around in rocking chairs. Speakman says that in a world where we all need socialization and a place to connect with others, the COA offers just that. But, she says, rather than people owning up to their age, what she has observed is people “validating what the COA has been saying — that isolation is not good.”

Judi Wilson, director of the Orleans Senior Center and Council on Aging, says she believes that “all age groups have learned a great deal about our relationships and interactions with others during the pandemic.”

One aspect of admitting your age, at least to yourself, is that you need to plan for the next few years.

“Many seniors realized that not having family or close friends available to provide support when needed left them isolated and more vulnerable, and it has really emphasized the need to plan for the transitional stages of aging and the supports needed to age in place in the community,” Wilson says.

Interestingly, during the past year of being mainly shut in our houses, for many older adults “their circles of connection became smaller while also expanding as we all learned to do things differently,” she adds. “The last year has taught us that we need to be connected with others, but there are many ways to do that.”

One way to connect with others is virtually. “Virtual programming opened doors of opportunity for social, cultural and educational engagement which enticed some to consider COA offerings for the first time,” Wilson says. “Technology provided a bridge of connectivity, and the pandemic increased receptivity to its use, while highlighting the digital divide for many seniors.”

To this end, the Cape’s COAs have collaborated on stepped-up programming.

As for McPherson, “I just figure the older I get, the more stories I have to share!” She adds, “The stories! That’s what makes it worthwhile.”