Public responses to the coronavirus pandemic on social media have laid bare the not-so-subtle interplay between medical culture and American culture at large. Reactions to the virus’s spread in the U.S. range from blatantly ageist (the nicknaming of COVID-19 as “the Boomer remover” among some young people) to genuinely helpful and empathetic (some grocery stores reserving certain hours for elderly customers). Between these two poles lie stereotyping and reductionism: Recently, a Washington Post article about a large Florida retirement community highlighted different responses among older people to the outbreak. Some residents refused to practice social distancing, echoing misinformation they’d absorbed from certain media outlets, while others expressed fear about falling ill. A majority of the comments responding to the article, however, focused on the former reaction, castigating “old people” as a whole for being irresponsible.
As a geriatrician, I’m keenly aware of the immense health-care barriers that older people face, with or without a global pandemic. In the second week of March, my clinic was converted to telehealth to protect patients. On Monday, one patient visit went well, another had to be stopped because of multiple technical challenges, and all the others were canceled by patients who told our office staff that they couldn’t manage a video visit. My patients didn’t grow up with any of this technology, and the less fortunate among them live across the digital divide. (This crisis threatens to worsen well-documented inequities in our health-care system, not just for old people but also for people of color and poor people.)