It is ironic that perhaps the most trusted American on public health issues is 79-year-old Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease and advisor to six presidents. As I have argued elsewhere, I have yet to see him referred to as “the elderly Dr. Fauci” or as “Dr. Fauci, an active senior.”
Because he is strong, smart and active – descriptors that are taken for granted in younger people but that have to be “proven” by older people.
The truth is this: Age 65 should not drive public-health policy or public perception. People age at very different rates. Age 65 is only relevant as an age when some people are entitled are entitled to benefits such as Social Security. Nothing else.
As we combat the most dangerous public-health crisis in a century, our language reveals our values. I agree that we cannot ignore aging or gloss over the changes that can occur over time as one ages. But people age differently because they live differently – genetics, lifestyle, access to health care, and so on. To assign the same language to people with a mind-bending variety of skills and capacity demeans all of us and robs us of their contributions.
Perhaps our future includes a vaccine that keeps us all safe. Maybe we will care more for each other and prioritize the public health. I hope so. I also hope that we will reaffirm the value of every member of our society, leaving “old” attitudes behind.
Kate de Medeiros is professor of gerontology and a research fellow at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Oxford. Twitter: @Kate_on_aging