A few years back, as part of a research project, Professor Karl Pillemer of Cornell University asked a sample of 1,500 elderly people what they regretted most about their lives. He was astonished that for many, their biggest regret was they had spent “so much of their time worrying”. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so surprised, as worry is ingrained into we oldies; if it’s not our health, it’s our wealth or more accurately, lack of both. I suppose part of the problem is defining “elderly” and who is doing the defining. As a beginning teacher, admittedly many years ago, a pupil observed that none of her teachers understood young people because, “we were old”. I must have been around 22.

When then, does being elderly, kick in? There are many stereotypical images, but we are not a homogeneous group. The most common yardstick may be eligibility for the state pension and the bus pass, but that doesn’t take account of the many 70-year-olds who are fitter than people 20 years younger. It also fails to recognise the increasing numbers who choose to work beyond state pension age. In some cases, that’s because of financial necessity, but many continue because simply, they aren’t ready to stop.

It’s sometimes forgotten that older people are a non-homogeneous and very diverse group. The lifestyle and needs of the average 65-year-old are very different from those of an 85-year-old. There are marked differences in health, income, wealth, marital status and living arrangements. Further diversity in terms of language, religion and culture arises from the many ethnic groups that now call Scotland home. Those cultures also tend to be differentiated by the respect accorded elderly relatives. They tend not to shunt granny into a care home because they want her room for a snooker table. Perhaps therefore, frailty rather than age should be the defining feature of what constitutes old age.

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Many who opt not to work beyond state pension age still make significant economic contributions. Legions of older people fulfil valuable roles as carers, often for grandchildren but occasionally, for their own aged parents. In our own family we have a relative who was well past retirement age herself, but was still the carer for both parents and was still caring for her mother at 70. The annual value to the economy of such hidden informal care is estimated at £65 billion.

As with so many other things, Covid is likely to impact significantly on how we perceive and respond to the rapidly growing number of older people. The qualifying age for the state pension is already heading for 67 and will rise further. The economic shock of the pandemic will rest most heavily on the shoulders of the diminishing proportion of the younger, working population who will have to work ever longer to support the ageing population. How long can they be expected to do so, particularly when they can expect much less from the system when their turn comes? Already, they have less wealth at the same age than earlier generations. Home ownership is decreasing most markedly amongst those aged between 25 and 44. Impending economic uncertainty may cause some older workers to defer retirement, but that could be a double-edged sword, making it even harder for younger workers to find jobs in a shrunken labour market.

Covid will have a more direct impact on the elderly, particularly in respect of their sense of personal wellbeing and security. Lockdown has already contributed to greater isolation and loss of connection, often with all-important local communities. The elderly have struggled to access vital services such as doctors, dentists, banks and post offices. Closure of local branches and poor public transport have made things especially tough, particularly in rural areas.

There is evidence that over-75s are making more use of the internet, but digital exclusion is still a major factor in the loss of connection in all its senses. Many organisations have retreated from direct interaction with the public. “Contacting us” now requires internet access and a bit of IT “savvy”. Only recently, an elderly relative in England was reduced to tears trying to register her husband’s death online.

More mundanely, I recently had difficulty ordering a drink in an otherwise empty pub beer garden. Ordering at the bar wasn’t possible: “It’s Covid you see." Although there was a server in the garden, orders could only be placed, “using our app”. Explaining I didn’t have the “app” cut no ice and if I wanted a drink, I would have to download the dreaded “app”. Fifteen minutes later I was able to order the elusive pint, delivered by the same server who couldn’t take my order. Ain’t technology wonderful? I’m not totally IT illiterate, but an older person without a relatively new mobile would have gone thirsty. Digital exclusion may become less of a problem for those who have grown up in the technological age. Yet, it’s still possible that even their skills and knowhow will be overtaken due to the speed of technological change and age-related cognitive decline.

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Covid may well be a watershed moment and the changes in our working and social lives are irreversible. Those without access to technology are likely to be disadvantaged and left behind. The “new normal” presents an existential threat to the unwary, particularly if elderly. For example, although the elderly are the least likely to be affected by crime, they are most at risk when it comes to digital fraud. They are much more likely to fall prey to online scammers unwittingly revealing bank details. For the elderly, Covid can only add to existing age-old ills.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.