23 April 2020

When the elderly are subject to social and physical distancing it has consequences – both for the individual and for society. This is the conclusion of researchers at Linköping University. The effects include loneliness, age discrimination, changes to working life, and a decrease in influence on political decisions.

Nearly every day those older than 70 years hear the advice: Stay at home and avoid social contact. In most countries, the elderly are isolated in order to protect them from the novel coronavirus. This virus has changed completely the way we live our lives all over the world, but because of the isolation it has brought it may be an extra burden for the elderly.Andreas Motel-Klingebiel, professor in ageing and later life. Photo credit David Einar

Swedish discussion around the elderly and the coronavirus has focussed on the effects of isolation on mental health. Andreas Motel-Klingebiel, professor in ageing and later life, says that isolation has major social effects: people have a fundamental need for social contact.

“People feel lonely and depressed. They experience greater anxiety since they can’t meet, talk about what’s happening or about their fears. They miss several types of communication, physical contact and a context for their interactions.”

A diverse group

Isolation also has social and political consequences for society, in both the short and long terms. This is the conclusion of both Andreas Motel-Klingebiel, whose research covers such areas as social inequality, social change and age discrimination, and Wenqian Xu, doctoral student in ageing and social change, whose research deals with how the elderly are portrayed in the media.

The consequences must be seen against the background of the fact that “the elderly” is not a homogeneous group. Some members are still employed, people who are healthy and active, involved in civil society and politics, while others are chronically ill or have an underlying condition, and are thus at a greater risk of becoming seriously ill if they become infected.

“Parts of the professional and family life, and involvement in political activity and civil society are now absent, when a complete group is to be isolated”, says Andreas Motel-Klingebiel.

“Society does not benefit from resources in the form of time and expertise. These resources are now sitting at home, or at least tending to sit at home.”

Wenqian Xu describes how the media give an image of the elderly as a vulnerable group, even though not all of them have a background of disease. 

“I find that it is extremely common that the media take age as a starting point. They describe the elderly as a group of helpless people, fragile and vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. This is not at all true for many of them: they are extremely active and participate in society.”

The elderly in the media

The image of the elderly given by both government agencies and the media is something that both Xu and Motel-Klingebiel return to. They believe that it plays a key role in the effects of the isolation. It increases the risk of greater inequality between age groups, and reinforces stereotypical ideas of the elderly. Wenquian Xu, PhD student in ageing and social change. Photo credit Chulalongkorn University

“The image of the elderly given by the media can be misleading. They depict the elderly as vulnerable, while young people are essentially immune against the coronavirus. There is a risk that this depiction brings anger against the elderly. The discourse in the media and in social media must be changed such that we create social solidarity, instead of inequalities”, says Xu. 

The decision to advise older people to observe social and physical distancing was taken to protect their health. How can a balance be achieved between protecting risk groups and minimising the effects of isolation?

“We must communicate in a manner that focusses not only on age, but also on state of health”, says Motel-Klingebiel. He continues:

“The communication must not be in terms of stereotypes, and avoid painting groups as victims. It should not pit one group against another. Older people are not victims because of the virus, and younger people are not victims because society has been closed down.”


The isolation itself and how it is described has consequences for the rights of the elderly. Andreas Motel-Klingebiel and Wenqian Xu point to such effects as poorer opportunities on the labour market and less potential to participate in political decision-making. Those who are influenced most severely by the decisions are not represented. They point out that this under-representation is structural, but has now become acute in the current situation, with the elderly staying at home. A further aspect is long-term medical care for older people, and how it is affected when acute cases are given priority. 
Does the current situation have any positive aspects? 

“One positive thing may be that older people are starting to use technology to communicate”, says Wenqian Xu.
But both he and Andreas Motel-Klingebiel point out that far from everybody has access to the equipment required and an internet connection. This may lead to increased inequalities. Sweden, however, is better situated than many other countries. Andreas Motel-Klingebiel suggests that the consequences for the elderly in Sweden can be less severe here, given the Swedish strategy to combat the spread of infection.

“It has often been highly criticised, and the Swedish strategy to deal with the crisis may be problematic from an epidemiological point of view. It may, on the other hand, be advantageous for maintaining society as it is, and not closing down all important functions, in particular for those who are employed. This strategy may result in fewer problems for the elderly.” 

Translation: George Farrants


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