Arts & Sciences COVID-19

COVID messaging: Caring or condescending?

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t unusual to see and hear public health announcements geared toward older populations because they were more susceptible to severe illness.

Over and over, older adults were referred to as “vulnerable.”

Meghan McDarby, a former PhD student, Catherine Ju, a former undergraduate student, and Matthew Picchiello, a current graduate student, all at Washington University in St. Louis, wanted to know if older adults saw this kind of language and the ways in which they were represented, overall, as paternalistic and ageist.

Working in the lab of Brian Carpenter, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences, the group found that in general, older adults did not see the messaging as negative, but rather as an indication that society cared about them.

That isn’t to say that the research did not bring up complicated feelings among older adults.

Their results were published Sept. 10 in the Journal of Social Issues.

McDarby, now a postdoctoral research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said the research questions were framed in terms of a theory that suggests that one set of stereotypes about older adults paints them as warm and kind, but also helpless and incompetent.

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