This post draws on findings from a phone-based qualitative interview project in the Netherlands. During April 2020, we interviewed 59 seniors about their experiences during the COVID-19 crisis and their views on the portrayal of senior adults in the national media. The participants were between the age of 54 and 95 (M=75), living throughout the Netherlands, both independently and in nursing homes. To illustrate our findings, we used quotes from some of our interviewees.
The Intelligent Lockdown
Shortly after the massive outbreak of COVID-19 in Italy, the Netherlands reported its first case on the 27th of February 2020. Roughly two weeks later, the first nationwide restrictions to mitigate the virus were announced; people were asked to work from home as much as possible and to stay at home as much as possible, schools, restaurants and gyms closed their doors, and events were cancelled. Although social life was practically halted, the Netherlands has never been in total lockdown since COVID-19 broke out there – contrary to most of Europe (or even the world). Rather, the country has followed a so called ‘intelligent lockdown’ (1), which meant that public transport remained in service, most stores kept their doors open, and people were still allowed to leave their homes when they felt it was necessary, the latter being open for personal interpretation.
However, certain groups, older adults (defined as 70+) and those with underlying health issues were strongly pressed to stay indoors and refrain from social contact with people outside of their household. At the time, the government seemed to suggest and hope that the intelligent lockdown would create what is now commonly known as group or herd immunity, as only ‘healthy’ people (i.e. young and fit) would be infected with the virus while ‘protecting’ the weak. Such an approach, so the logic seemed to be, would limit social, economic and psychological costs of mitigation measures.
This principle of ‘protecting the weak’ became widespread not only through the national media but also confirmed in the words of the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, who stated: “I would like to tell you [seniors and those with underlying health issues] that our absolute priority is to minimize the risks for you” (2). Moreover, he made an appeal to the young and healthy citizens to follow the restrictions not only for themselves but mainly for “our older people.” In response, media outlets started to portray seniors as a particularly vulnerable group and, at the same time, reported widely on the growing ‘solidarity’ of younger generations who were expected to minimize their social contact for these ‘vulnerable people’ (3) and help out those in need: the older people and the weak.
Although probably driven by the best intentions, the ever-growing attention to the situation of older individuals, further emphasized by the sparked solidarity from younger generations, caused many seniors to become more conscious of their so called ‘vulnerable position’. Peter, aged 75, reflected: “the corona crisis did make me aware that I am more vulnerable now than younger people, because of my age. I am part of the risk group”.
At the same time, many other interviewees did not recognize themselves in the unambiguous and generalizing image of ‘older vulnerable people.’ As stated by Susan, aged 73: “I do not feel addressed when [the media] talk about older people. Yes, I understand that they have to focus on older people because of the risk, but no, I do not see myself as old.”
The paradox Susan describes – of belonging to a risk group while not identifying as such – highlights the discrepancy between the portrayal in the media of older adults being ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk,’ and one’s own perception of ‘not feeling old.’ This discrepancy became even clearer to us when we discussed with participants how they dealt with the measures taken to ‘protect’ them, specifically, during the intelligent lockdown. Multiple seniors experienced internal conflict in assessing which measures applied to them, and how they were to adhere to them.
For example, many people would like to go out for a walk or bike ride, but some felt insecure or anxious, as the government had urged them to stay inside as much as possible. Charlotte, aged 72, reflected on this by saying: “Rutte says ‘stay at home’, so when I do go out, I feel guilty. But on the other hand, I don’t meet anyone, or yes, they fly by on their bike, but I don’t think that the virus will hit me on the bike.” Like Charlotte, several interviewees tried to manoeuvre between the measures set by the government, their own perception of health, and a self-determined risk of becoming infected.
As outlined above, most of the solidarity during the COVID-19 crisis was expected to come from younger generations and the emphasis was largely on the ‘sacrifices’ of the young. During our interviews however, we noticed that solidarity was not a one way street but went in both directions.
Contrary to the regular and frequent stories in the media of lonely, isolated, and vulnerable individuals, most of our older participants would not portray themselves as those who were hit hardest by this crisis. Instead, they felt that younger people, who were losing their jobs and were forced to stay inside to protect the old, were hit harder by the pandemic and needed support and help, as Gill, aged 80, explained: “the mental damage inflicted on people, who are now unable to work and become stressed because they don’t make money. This can’t go on, [the government] should say that older people should stay inside as much as possible and that young people can resume their lives.”
Some interviewees suggested that COVID-19 actually pointed out ‘new vulnerable groups’ such as small business owners or younger generations and worried about the future of these groups. Leo, for instance, was afraid that a longer lockdown would have a great effect on education: “I worry about my grandchildren, if they receive enough education now so that they do not fall behind in their education later. I hope that schools will start again, I don’t mind staying inside, but let them start again.” Similar to Leo and Gill, several seniors stated that they would be happy to stay inside (a bit longer) if that meant that younger generations and the economy could start again.
The issue of vulnerability and the need for solidarity between generations was further drawn out when, several weeks into the intelligent lockdown, a statement was put forward saying that, in the worst-case scenario, people above a certain age would no longer be admitted to intensive care (4). This made many participants reflect upon their personal health and that of others.
Some participants, including Susan, told us that they would like to be admitted to intensive care no matter what. Yet others stated that they would be happy to give up their intensive care bed to a young person with a family when the situation would arise. Leo, for example, told us: “I have lived my life, I would not want to go to the [intensive care], give my bed to someone else”. And Margot, aged 72, said: “if there is a choice between me and a young person who still has a family, in terms of staying alive, well, I don’t mind if they choose him or her over me”.
The stories that we gathered do not only show the heterogeneity amongst senior citizens but also that solidarity during crises such as COVID-19 is not a one way street and does not only come from younger generations. Instead, older adults who are often portrayed during this crisis to ‘be vulnerable and in need of help’ also feel that they can help and support younger generations. This demonstrates that rather than solely focussing on the possible vulnerability of older adults, we should highlight their strength and willingness to contribute to society and acknowledge that solidarity is always a mutual endeavour — it takes two to tango.
Miriam Verhage has worked at Leyden Academy since May 2018. Here, Miriam researches the influence of social initiatives in the well-being and the social networks of the elderly people in Netherlands. Furthermore, Miriam does qualitative research on the image young people have of the elderly. After obtaining her Bachelor of Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University Miriam successfully completed the Research Master Cultural Anthropology from the University of Utrecht. In addition to her passion for research Miriam feels strongly connected to (elderly) care. After high school she worked at a day care for demented people and in a nursing home for senior citizens. Miriam has also worked as a nutrition assistant at the Department of Geriatrics of Radboud University Medical Center.
Lucia Thielman joined the research team of Leyden Academy in January 2020, where she will research projects related to interaction between elders and youth, initiated by Leyden Academy and Jo Visser fund. Furthermore, Lucia will be involved in action researcher in projects related to elderly care in Maarssen and Hilversum. Lucia is no stranger to the academy, as in 2017 she did her internship on the positive effects of neighborhood participation in health. Lucia first obtained her Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leiden. After which she completed in 2018 her Master’s degree in Management, Policy Analysis and Entrepreneurship in Health and Life Sciences. Lucia started her working life as project coordinator for several social projects, including for the Move Foundation. Besides her work at Leyden Academy Lucia is also involved in research at the Free University in Amsterdam.
Lieke de Kock joined the team of Leyden Academy in January 2020, where she is junior researcher in the project ‘Art in long-term care’. In this participatory research we visit the initiatives on art in long-term elderly care throughout the Netherlands, and we enter into dialogue with the participants and stakeholders. In this way we map the active factors involved, and hopefully contribute to a broader base of support for these initiatives. Lieke has a background in theatre studies. She studied, lived and worked for five years in the UK, where amongst others she researched into the effect of theater on people with memory problems in elderly care homes. The past 3.5 years Lieke worked as a care provider at a care organisation in Ede and as a geriatric activity therapist in a hospital in Gelderland, both in the Netherlands. In addition, Lieke followed the education program Social Work at Hogeschool Arnhem and Nijmegen.
Jolanda Lindenberg is a socio-cultural anthropologist with a PhD from the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale, Germany. At the Leyden Academy, Jolanda leads the activities in the focus area Connected, and researches social networking, group identity and identity formation of older people. She is also involved in various research projects, including the national prevalence of elder abuse, quality of life of older people, the image of the elderly, and the development of a tool that measures the wellbeing of older individuals (the Life and Vitality Assessment). Jolanda’s main focus is the views of the elderly. Along with fellow Belia Schuurman she reviews how older people think about themselves and the elderly in general. With fellow Nina Conkova she researches the needs of elderly people with a non-Dutch background. In addition, Jolanda is involved in various courses, for example the course ‘Wellbeing of Seniors’ for healthcare professionals and ‘Start-Up Plus’ for older entrepreneurs.
“The Age of COVID-19” is a series being cross-posted at Somatosphere and the Association for Anthropology, Gerontology and the Life Course (AAGE) blog and is edited by Celeste Pang, Cristina Douglas, Janelle Taylor and Narelle Warren.
 All names in this blog are anonymized and pseudonyms.
1. Coronavirus: Why Dutch lockdown may be a high-risk strategy, BBC News, April 5 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52135814
2. Televisietoespraak premier, Algemeen Dagblad, March 17 2020
3. De Nederlandse nuchterheidscultus en de coronatest, Volkskrant, March 16 2020
4. Hoeveel bedden zijn er op de IC’s?, De Vokskrant, March 14 2020
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