‘They say that I’m vulnerable’: older adults’ perceptions of disaster resilience and pandemic-related media discourse

O'Sullivan, Tracey L. | $36,231

Ontario University of Ottawa 2021 SSHRC

During early waves of the COVID‑19 pandemic, older people were identified as a ‘vulnerable population’ with more susceptibility to severe illness and death than other age groups. While public health measures are necessary to control transmission of the virus, there are social risks associated with distancing, most notably the adverse outcomes of social isolation (Armitage & Nellums, 2020).

The label ‘vulnerable populations’ is commonplace in disaster management, and it has become a mainstream discourse in news and social media during the COVID‑19 pandemic. But who wants to be labelled ‘vulnerable’? This deficit-oriented term is stigmatizing and influences how people see and act toward this heterogeneous group of people. On the other hand, ‘resilience’ is a term used to describe people bouncing back from —or resisting— the adverse impacts they face. Compared with the term ‘vulnerable,’ which is widely used, it is telling that ‘resilient’ is rarely used as a label to describe a whole population of older people.

Formal and informal communication —via news outlets and social media— have been essential throughout the pandemic for exchanging information and enhancing awareness of risk and public health recommendations. Modern technologies have immeasurable benefits, but it is prudent to consider how media discourse can frame issues and shape beliefs during disasters, including ageist and ableist attitudes (Barth et al., 2021; O’Sullivan et al., 2019; Stollznow, 2020). Indeed, Fraser et al. (2020) warned of the potential negative impacts of ageist hashtags circulating on social media during the early weeks of the COVID‑19 pandemic.

The overarching purpose of this research project is to understand how pandemic experiences and exposure to COVID‑19 media discourse influence older adults’ perceptions of resilience and vulnerability. Specifically, we are interested in exploring how older age and ability are portrayed in news and social media, how older adults experienced resilience and vulnerability during the pandemic, and what strategies older adults and journalists recommend to support resilience among older adults through the recovery period.

Using the EnRiCH Resilience Framework for High-Risk Populations (O’Sullivan et al, 2014) as a conceptual framework, we will address these research questions using multiple methods: 1) semi-structured phone interviews with n=40-50 older adults; 2) qualitative media analysis of news, social media and political /editorial cartoons; and 3) focus group consultations with older adults and journalists, using the Structured Interview Matrix facilitation method (O’Sullivan et al., 2014). These methods will facilitate a participatory approach which fosters meaningful participation in the development of recommendations to support resilience.

We expect this research will stimulate discussion about ageist labels that have stigmatized older adults during the pandemic, and the important role of media in presenting a balanced view of aging. This research will provide opportunity and space for older adults to voice their opinions and share their experiences of resilience and vulnerability during the pandemic and through the transition to recovery. Using a participatory approach, older adults and journalists will be involved in developing policy and practice recommendations for how media can support resilience among older adults through the long-term pandemic recovery period. As a broader impact, the findings have the potential to contribute to the global strategy to reduce ageism and promote healthy ageing throughout pandemic recovery and adaptation to a ‘new normal’.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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