At the beginning of 2020, Margaret Keenan, who turned 91 this month, could not possibly have imagined that her name and image would be broadcast all over the world before the year’s end.
Yet, on 8 December, the retired jewellery store assistant, who hails from Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland, but has lived in the West Midlands for more than 60 years, achieved instantaneous global fame and a place in the history of public health. At University Hospital, Coventry, she became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine outside a trial.
“It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for,” Ms Keenan, who is a grandmother, said, “because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the new year, after being on my own for most of the year. My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it. If I can have it at 90, then you can have it too.” Ms Keenan received the second of the two required jabs on Tuesday.
The first year of Covid-19 has been especially brutal for the elderly: according to the latest figures released by the Office for National Statistics, the hospital admission rate for those aged 85 years and above is almost 50 times higher than for those aged between 15 and 44. Almost 90 per cent of those who have died from the virus have been 65 or older.
One of the great scandals of the pandemic has been the woeful neglect of care home residents, many of whom have died wretchedly lonely deaths away from their relatives, and routinely denied proper medical care. The promise made by Boris Johnson outside Number 10 on the day he became prime minister in July 2019 that “we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all” rings disgracefully hollow today.
Yet – in spite of these horrors – the elderly have also set an example to others in 2020, most notably with respect to vaccine roll-out. One of the unlikeliest viral videos of the year was a CNN interview with another 91-year-old, Martin Kenyon, who also received the vaccine on the first day of its availability.
“Well, there’s no point in dying now when I’ve lived this long, is there?” Mr Kenyon asked the startled reporter outside Guy’s Hospital in central London. Though he declared the vaccine itself “very unexciting”, he revealed to CNN’s viewers that “I couldn’t damn well find anywhere to park my car, so I was late,” and that, placed in a queue for the jab, he “had a rather nasty lunch and then came back and they were ready for me”. His phlegmatic, no-nonsense approach was bracingly welcome.
Given Covid-19’s frequently fatal impact upon the elderly, it obviously makes epidemiological sense to give them the vaccine first. But they are also – as a significant public bonus – magnificent ambassadors for its benefits and for full public participation in the vaccination roll-out programme, upon which so much depends in 2021.
The age cohort of which Ms Keenan and Mr Kenyon are members were in their twenties when the polio vaccine became widely available in the mid-1950s. They have seen the rubella vaccine first offered to their children’s generation, and then the arrival of MMR in 1988.
They are old enough to recall a time when death from measles, polio and whooping cough was relatively common. And, as a result, their generation is much too sensible to indulge the idiocies of anti-vaxx conspiracy theories – or its gentrified cousin, “vaccine hesitancy”. They understand instinctively that it is an act of citizenship as well as of personal well-being to be vaccinated against a deadly transmissible disease.
They are not so morally decadent as to regard such matters as primarily a matter of “personal choice” – the current, slippery language advanced by those who believe that they and their Facebook friends know more about vaccine safety than medical regulators and accredited researchers who conduct double-blind, peer-reviewed clinical trials. (It is a measure of the depths to which the anti-vaxxers will stoop that they tried to spread online the outright lie that Ms Keenan was a “crisis actor” and that her vaccination had been staged to serve some vague nefarious purpose.)
The dignified role that the elderly are playing as spokespeople for the coronavirus vaccine is a parable of a greater story. We are gradually learning, as a society, that the 100-year life is not just a matter of life expectancy, and that the questions raised by increased longevity are not confined to enhanced medical treatment and the urgent need for social care reform – hugely important though those challenges are.
One of the most fascinating features of 21st-century life is its truly multi-generational character. The old tripartite division of the growing, the working and the retired does not do justice to the sheer complexity of a population in which it is sensible to prepare for several careers rather than one, in which people are postponing their retirement later and later, and in which becoming a centenarian is no longer utterly exceptional.
In Germany, this complexity has been formalised in Mehrgenerationhauser: publicly funded residences in which people of all ages live together in a collaborative spirit. In one of the best political books of the year, Tribes, the Labour politician David Lammy championed “encounter culture” across generations, embodied, for example, by the Cares Family network of groups in London, Liverpool and Manchester.
“This is not young people volunteering to look after old people,” writes Lammy. “[I]t is young and old people actively choosing to share time together. It embodies a resistance to the narrative that the elderly and the young must live parallel lives. Both groups have a lot to learn from each other.”
Even activism is not the preserve of the young. The global climate emergency movement has two instantly recognisable leaders: Greta Thunberg, who is 17, and Sir David Attenborough, who is 94. Ms Thunberg speaks with the urgency and impatience of youth. Sir David speaks with the wisdom of a broadcaster and natural historian old enough to have witnessed damage being done to the environment across the decades, and to know from first-hand experience how little time is left if we wish to avert planetary disaster.
In a more specific way, Captain Sir Tom Moore, the 100-year-old veteran of the Burma conflict, became a symbol early in the Covid crisis, not only of public support for the besieged NHS, but also of the collective stamina that was going to be required to get through this crisis. His original walking campaign raised more than £30 million for NHS Charities Together, and his foundation is now focusing its work upon easing loneliness – an affliction that has become an epidemic in its own right, thanks to Covid restrictions that have especially isolated the vulnerable and the aged.
Our hyper-technological age is one fixated by the new, the innovative and youthful. In itself, this is no bad thing. To remain prosperous and vital, a society requires the energy and impatience for change that the young embody.
Yet it also needs wisdom – the sort of knowledge that has to be earned, rather than simply dug out of data. It needs to seek out and draw upon that wisdom, not consign it to the storage units of desperate decline that constitute much social care in this country.
“Life can only be understood backwards,” wrote Kierkegaard “but it must be lived forwards.” This should be the basis for a new understanding between the multiple generations co-existing in our ever more diverse and complex society.
In which context, please note that, on 20 January, Joe Biden, who is 78, will become the oldest US president to be inaugurated in the history of the republic. On Christmas Day, more than eight million people tuned in to hear the message of a 94-year-old woman: a message of reassurance delivered by the Queen, whose first prime minister was Winston Churchill.
Even at this time of separation, restriction and confinement, she said, “You are not alone.” The lesson implicit in those words – that we must strive with all our energy and imagination to draw back together in the difficult year ahead – could scarcely be more important. Not by accident is it called the wisdom of the ages.