Impact of coronavirus policy on older people: with Professor Malcolm Johnson.  


The controversy around isolation – to confine or not to confine.

Malcolm Johnson, visiting Professor of Gerontology and End of Life at the University of Bath, gives us his views on the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, and how it will impact older people’s lives.

As a professor of Health and Social Policy at the University of Bath since 1995, Professor Johnson has written twelve books, including ‘Spiritual Dimensions of Ageing’, and over 160 chapters, articles and monographs. The Professor has recently attracted the public’s attention as the lead experimenter on Channel 4’s ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’, which sees pre-school children sharing their classroom with older people in a Bristol retirement home.

Age-stigmatising and need for revision.

As coronavirus worsens, concerns continue to grow for the vulnerable members of our society. According to the Health Secretary, over-70s will be asked to stay home ‘within weeks’ to be ‘shielded for their own protection’. But is this response ‘age stigmatising’?

Professor Johnson responds, “The government’s first policies to contain the coronavirus have been broadly welcomed; but they are already showing the need of revision in a variety of ways.

One of these is the across the board confinement of older people.

It creates a previously unknown category of 9 million people over 70 who are deemed to be ‘vulnerable’ and therefore at greater risk of infection than other adults. But only a small minority have illnesses and long-term conditions that compromise their immune systems.”

If our approach to a pandemic is age stigmatising, does this mean that we need to revise this approach?”

Social isolation.

Over 51% of all people aged 75 and over live alone (ONS, 2010) and two-fifths of all older people say the television is their main company (Age UK 2014). It is clear that self-isolating can put vulnerable people at risk of further social isolation. Johnson continues: “Millions of fit and active older citizens now feel condemned to months of […] isolation, which will multiply the already extensive loneliness and depression (two of the epidemic conditions of old age).”

Vital volunteers needed.

The UK government is calling upon retired medical professions to step in to assist the pandemic. On this point, Professor Johnson adds:

“The extensive networks of volunteer social support in UK society (which include the huge contribution from churches and bodies like Age UK) are reliant on people over 70.

In turn, those committed volunteers gain a sense of wellbeing and self-value from the contributions they make to the lives of others. Our society is profoundly dependent on these gifts of time, experience, skill and care. To set this all aside for the sake of an unevidenced categorical ruling is to weaken the social fabric and to cause avoidable misery for the sake of over-caution.

It is certainly possible to develop guidelines and safe practices that will bring humane and practical relief to those who genuinely are at risk, whilst re-enabling those who are willing givers of time and talents.”

Health-span, not lifespan.

Are our ideas of retirement and old age out of date? Professor Johnson adds, “Across our society, we have over the past twenty years moved away from age-based policies (e.g. in medicine and employment) because predominantly healthy life extension has invalidated out-of-date notions that conflate retirement and functional old age. Now is not the time to re-impose that out-dated model, but to maintain the valued place of the active and healthy retired.”

Family support network.

With UK schools, colleges and nurseries to close from Friday (20th March 2020) because of the pandemic, it is now more than ever that families will be reliant on older family members to step in help.

Professor Johnson concludes: “As younger people need to maintain family life and employment, we need to maintain as far as we can the vital role of grandparents. If schools are to close and the extensive involvement of grandparents is simply disposed of, there is an avoidable crisis in the making.  Again, this will require sensible guidelines to protect the health of all generations.”

What to do?

Whilst we should be mindful about age discrimination, we are aware that people over 70-years-old are at high risk during the coronavirus pandemic. Guild Living encourages us all to look out for each other, especially those who – if and when are required to self-isolate – will experience increased loneliness. For more information on how you can help others, see our post on what you can do to help older people.

If you are concerned about your own health, or the health of someone else, we encourage you to follow the links below for advice on what to do – as well as some steps we can all take to reduce the spread of coronavirus:


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