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Ageism: The Toll of Growing Older on Mental Health

Dina Youssef

Aging is an unavoidable biological process, yet it is viewed as a condition that pertains only to the elderly. Coined by Robert Neil Butler in 1969, the textbook definition of ageism is the discrimination of individuals on the basis of their age, although, this term was mainly used to describe prejudice against seniors. Ageism around the world comes from the negative outlook many have on growing old. This perspective can put our elders at risk and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2019 highlighted this notion. When assessing who the virus has affected, it can easily be seen that the pandemic has targeted older people. Nursing homes and other care homes for older adults held the majority of the deaths due to coronavirus and were the epicenters of the disease. Ageism became apparent around the world when lockdowns and other preventive measures were not instated quick enough when the pandemic first surfaced. Countries seemed to value younger persons’ social lives rather than the well-being of their older demographic. Many countries realized that they did not have the proper infrastructure to care for older patients, which amplified the gap in healthcare when it came to those who perhaps at the time needed it most.

The impact of Covid-19 on the elderly was not just contained to physical health. The mental toll that the pandemic had is arguably just as dire. The enforced quarantine made older people susceptible to psychological effects such as loneliness, depression and even PTSD (Banerjee, 2020). While many of us have alleviated our loneliness and found ways to connect with others through various social media apps, many elderly people are not as well versed in this newer technology, making it increasingly difficult to connect the same way.

Furthermore, many older adults rely on informal care that comes from family members. For those who are living in potentially abusive environments, frequency and severity of abuse may increase risk for mental health issues. The stay-at-home order that was instated during the pandemic put the elderly at risk for elder abuse. Elder abuse can be emotional, physical and mental. All of this can put strain on this demographic. Even older adults who reside at nursing homes were seen to face issues. Those with Dementia and Alzheimer's makeup over 50% of those living in nursing homes. Their autonomy and independence could become compromised, making them more likely to battle mental health issues that further exacerbate their conditions. Spaces that are meant to have been safe were no longer reliable for seniors during the pandemic. Limited visitations from friends and family took away a line of central care needed for the wellbeing of those in nursing homes. Visitations are vital to care, offering not only emotional support, but also allowing friends and family to advocate for their loved ones and provide them with the personalized care that is needed. Without these visitations, nursing homes have become a hub for loneliness, anxiety, and depression. It is incontestable that this social isolation has negative consequences on the mental health of residents.

Mental health issues are known to have detrimental effects on physical health. The body and the mind make up one intricate system. We often attempt to separate the body and the mind, treating our social and emotional issues as different from our physical illnesses. Physical health is very much affected by the ways we choose to deal with our mental health. That is why addressing the issues geriatric patients face is vital. Loneliness was found to be associated with raised blood pressure, vascular disease, lung disease, stroke, and cancer. Decreased cognitive function was also associated with baseline loneliness ( Ayalon , 2019). The risk for these conditions were all exacerbated this past year especially in seniors.

This pandemic is not being battled properly for older individuals. The older demographic was dying at a disproportionate rate due to the fact that proper measures weren’t being taken to keep them safe. It has become clearer overtime that families will have to care for their loved ones and if that is not possible then those who are on their own may suffer greatly due to the inconsistencies of the United States healthcare system. Why is aging and the required care that comes with it an afterthought to most Americans? This is a condition that will catch up with everyone yet there are no programs put in place to support our elderly in our community. Elderly patients seem to have been the least prioritized group when they in fact were hit the heaviest by the aftershocks of COVID-19.


Banerjee, D. (2020, June). 'age and ageism in covid-19': Elderly mental health-care vulnerabilities and needs. Asian journal of psychiatry. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from 8430/.

Boren, S., & About The Author Sari Boren Sari Boren is a writer. (2021, November 8). Elder abuse: Research on prevalence, assessment and prevention. The Journalist's Resource.

O'Caoimh, R., O'Donovan, M. R., Monahan, M. P., Dalton O'Connor, C., Buckley, C., Kilty, C., Fitzgerald, S., Hartigan, I., & Cornally, N. (2020). Psychosocial impact of covid-19 nursing home restrictions on visitors of residents with Cognitive Impairment: A cross-sectional study as part of the engaging remotely in care (eric) project. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11.

Springer (2019). Contemporary Perspectives on ageism.

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