As lockdown lifts, let older people make own choices

Holding elderly person's hand (Jewish News)
Holding elderly person's hand (Jewish News)

What makes life worth living? Many have considered this question during lockdown and isolation.

As individuals, we have different answers, but a common thread is the importance of family, friends, leisure activities and community. Having suffered as their incomes or businesses collapse, regular shul-goers or newly bereaved have found our community’s commendable rapid response to close synagogues and cancel simchas or shivas and override normal religious rules, left a large void. Most of us can’t wait to get back to some kind of ‘normal’ life.

As restrictions are starting to ease, most of us are excited at the prospect of leaving our homes when we want to, re-connecting with families and friends, returning to work – or attending synagogue (from a safe distance of course).

And when shuls do re-open, probably not before July, I believe that it is vitally important that our community does not ban certain groups from attending. Some have suggested the over-70s, for example, should be required to stay away. I would respectfully point out that all older people, many of whom consider shul and community a vital element of life, should make their own choices, with appropriate guidance or advice, rather than having restrictions forced on them. I do hope the rabbanim will recognise this.

Older people accepted lockdown restrictions as emergency rules for all. Thankfully, the government’s measures to ease lockdown restrictions did not, as many had feared, include ageist bias. Older people, often fitter and healthier than those much younger than themselves, should not have their freedoms and liberty to leave their own homes  restricted. Opposing discrimination and  recognising individual rights are values for which so many people fought and died. Simplistic age-based cut-offs for imposing restrictions should be no more acceptable than using religion, race, ethnicity or gender as defining factors.

Some justify considering age discrimination by claiming to be ‘protecting’ older people. The simplistic notion that over-70s are more at risk of dying from this disease is not supported by evidence.

Official statistics show that over-70s comprise 81.5 percent of Covid-19 deaths, but this does not mean all older people are at greater risk than younger people. In any year, over-70s comprise 82 percent of all deaths from any cause, so this virus has not increased the risks of dying for this age group. It is simply a fact that older people are more likely to die than all younger people. Of course, without widespread testing and medical examination, all the figures are inexact. However, this evidence is also supported by the medical profession, who are opposed to blanket, age-based lockdown policy.

Reaching a particular age does not suddenly make you frail, weak and vulnerable and we have communities full of energetic, active and healthy older people.

Indeed, inactivity, isolation and cutting people off from their religious activities could be more damaging to their physical as well as mental health than Covid-19. Strokes, heart problems, immobility and depression will all be worsened.

A basic principle of Judaism is to protect life, but we also believe in fairness and individual responsibility. Those who want to stay home will do so, but I believe we all deserve the same rights as other adults and should be just as trusted as other ages to keep safe.

Older people can often be the glue that holds family life, congregations and communal activities together. They are much-needed in our religious life and as we emerge from these emergency restrictions, I hope that we will demonstrate our determination to respect them, as our sages recommend.


About the Author
Baroness Altmann is a former UK pensions minister
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