Journalism
The Pandemic Diary Of The Aged 65+

The Struggle Of The Over 65s Against The Pandemic, Hate and Loneliness
65+ Pandemic Diary

© P24

Author: Esra Açıkgöz

“It was frightening to think that our lives fell into the hands of some men, not the virus”, “It is very unfair to be discriminated against because of old age”, “The isolation caused by the pandemic was even more severe than the one felt in prison. Because it put invisible walls into our lives”, “Even if it is hate speech, at least people are talking about us”… These are just a few testimonies that show what people over the age of 65 are going through during the pandemic.

Some 7 million 953 thousand 555 people were banned from going outside for 16 months under different degrees of restrictions. They were considered dangerous, very dangerous! That’s why they were people who called the police when they saw them in the streets and reported them. Some yelled “go home”, others poured cologne on their heads. In this article series that will last eight days, we will listen to first-hand accounts from people aged 65 and over on the physical and mental scars caused by Covid-19 restrictions, how the heightened discrimination during the pandemic made them feel, the danger of being shown as “scapegoats”, and their struggle with technology. Meanwhile, experts will give insights on the roots of ageism in our society, why it has become widespread, and the pandemic’s psychological effects of the pandemic on the elderly.

The Pandemic Diary Of The Aged 65+ #1: It Is Challenging To Deal With Both The Pandemic And Poverty

During the pandemic, people aged 65 and over not only had to struggle against bans and officials’ public declarations, but also with loneliness and hate

“Keep your elderly at home just like antique cars tucked away in garages.” This was said during a TV show by Ateş Kara, a member of Turkey’s Science Board which gave first-hand advice to the government during the pandemic. This sentence alone is enough to describe how people over the age of 65 were perceived. It also shows how the pandemic was used as an excuse to “get rid of” the elderly.

On the 21st of March 2020, 7 million 953 thousand 555 people were imprisoned in their homes for 16 months -except for a few hours of recess- just because they were 65 years old or older. How they would access food in such time wasn’t a consideration, neither were their health problems. A woman was even forced to get off the bus, and her voice pleading when she said, “I have just cleaned three stairways. I’ll be hungry if I don’t work” was engraved in the ears. At times authorities deemed it “safe” for them to go out between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., while other times, it was between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. No one could understand why they would be in danger after 1:01 p.m., not even health professionals.

Value of bidding farewell

Few people cared about looking for an answer. The bans and the authorities’ statements, combined with the discriminatory language in the media, promptly turned the elderly “at risk” into a “threat”. Prohibitions were therefore considered a well-deserved punishment, with which almost everyone agreed. Dangerous they were, very dangerous indeed! That’s why people alerted the police and tipped them off. Some yelled “go home” as they walked in the streets; others poured cologne on their heads... Even when they went outside during the few “permitted” hours, the elderly could not escape accusing glances.

It took 16 months until the “elderly hunt” ended. On the 1st of June 2021, they regained their freedom to go out of their homes again. However, they were the ones who needed to move their bodies more than anyone else due to their age. They also yearned to spend more time with their loved ones. Seeing friends who remain, living the present days fully, bidding farewell to those who “departed” had a unique value for them. These were taken away. Their loneliness at the funerals of loved ones and the despair they felt when they couldn’t attend opened a big wound in their hearts.

Falling into the hands of authorities

Dealing with the virus on the one hand, on the other with loneliness and hatred, they also had to face the need of learning technology. An entire generation which only met with computers and the internet after their 50 -provided that, of course, they were one of those lucky few who worked at a desk job- was now required to pay their bills, manage their salary, get a “HES” code [HES being the abbreviation of “Life Fits Home”, the state app tracking Covid-19 patients across Turkey and ensuring those remained under quarantine], and set up a vaccination appointment over the internet. They were still trying to figure out how to get a password for the state’s digital portal where they would access their patient status [e-government] when everything had to be done virtually. In a country where millions of people live below the poverty line, the absurdity of assuming that everyone could own a smartphone was not even considered.

In this eight-day long series, we have spoken to people aged 65 and over about the physical and mental scars caused by the coronavirus and the government’s prohibitions, the effects of an increased ageism age during the pandemic, the danger of being designated as “scapegoats”, and their struggle with technology. “What was scary was not the virus, but that our lives fell into the hands of a few men,” some said. “We are not dead yet, we exist,” others exclaimed. Some of their testimonies hurt were painful to hear, as when they said, “for all the hate speech and insults, we are at least visible and spoken about.”

Now, without further ado, let’s listen to Mahinur Şahbaz’s story.

“I couldn’t make ends meet, so I took out a loan”

Mahinur Şahbaz spent a third of her life working. She doesn’t even mention all the taxes she has paid throughout her life. What she got at the end was a pension below the poverty line. That’s why, she says, that it was so difficult during the pandemic to deal with the virus, with poverty and with the problems caused by old age. In her role as the President of the Pensioners’ Solidarity Union, she knows that she is not the only pensioner struggling. 

Despite not paying rent and living alone, Şahbaz can hardly make it to the end of the month if she doesn’t look for places that sell cheap and quality products in Istanbul. But the pandemic and the prohibitions deprived her of doing this. “The pandemic took especially a toll on my financial situation and health. When we couldn’t go out, we shopped online. But it was both of poor quality and very expensive. Prices went up in such an unbridled and unregulated fashion,” she says. “Finally, I took out an interest-free loan of 5 thousand TL [around €320] from the bank”. She found the solution in eating pasta and making her own bread. This, however, also sets off health issues.

“I was prevented from taking the bus on my way to the doctor”

Şahbaz has chronic diseases: Diabetes, cholesterol, heart disease… “I was caught off guard when we were locked down for 51 days straight, without being given the time to prepare,” she says when she recalls the stress she experienced at the time. “As nobody knew what the virus was and how exactly it spread, I was apprehensive. I couldn’t go to the doctor for my regular checkups. I couldn’t eat healthy due to my financial situation. And I ended up gaining six kilograms after being imprisoned at home for a year,” she says. The extra weight she gained resulted in new health issues.

After suffering a heart spasm during the lockdown, she finally decides to make an appointment with the doctor. This is when she has to face the most discriminatory experience of her 68-year life: On her way to the doctor, she tried to get on the bus. The bus driver, however, was determined not to take this “dangerous” passenger on board. Presenting the document which attests to her appointment with the doctor is not enough to change his opinion. He wants to see permission from the police station. “It was a horrible feeling,” she says. Her sadness could be heard in her voice. “Why should I go to the police station? The state locked the elderly home, making it seem like we were responsible for the epidemic, and this is the result. The worst part was that no other passenger supported me. I felt so sad. It is very unfair to be discriminated against because of old age.”

“The prohibitions killed our friends”

“When we go to the primary school, we are taught for years to show love for children and to respect the elders. But with the pandemic, we saw that this was a lie,” Şahbaz says. Her voice grows louder as if she wants to rebel against injustice. “There were even grocery stores where banners that read ‘65+ cannot enter!’ were put on the windows. We will be unable to forget how excluded, neglected and discriminated against we felt during all this time. The place where power leaves scars becomes your identity.” Şahbaz argues that the pandemic and prohibitions are used as a tool to exert violence over the elderly and instigate fear. Just as the jarring effect the state of emergency and the decree-laws had an effect on employees [following the failed coup attempt in 2016], the pandemic prohibitions crushed the elderly, she says. 

If older people in Turkey most often live with their children because they can’t make ends meet, they don’t understand the logic of the age-based curfews at all. After all, aged over 65 or not, everyone sits around the same table and breathes the same air. Their children commute to work too. Not to mention the risks of inactivity. “When the prohibition was lifted, some people couldn’t even walk,” Şahbaz says. “We had friends and union members who passed away due to heart diseases, chronic diabetes and stress. It is definitely the decisions of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board and the Ministry of Health that killed them.”

Şahbaz is concerned about the possibility of a new lockdown with the recent increase in the number of cases and deaths. “The pandemic showed very clearly and painfully the consequences of the commercialization of healthcare. All the burden is on healthcare workers,” she says. Epidemics will obviously not end. Therefore developing a system that will prevent this burden is absolutely necessary.”

“We are not dead yet, we exist!”

Şahbaz reminded us that the vulnerability to coronavirus is defined not by age but by the immune system elsewhere than Turkey. Here, however, the situation is different. She argued that the official ideology sees old age as a disease. “Since everything is based on growth, those who don’t produce anymore are useless, they are seen as a burden,” she says. The salaries of most of the 9 million 187 thousand retired people in Turkey are below the hunger threshold. According to the report of the International Labor Organization, Turkey even surpassed Uganda in the list of countries with the poorest retirees.

Although there are many problems related to the conditions of the elderly in Turkey, for Şahbaz the solution is clear: Change of mentality. And above all, abandoning the idea that the elderly are a burden on the economy. “The rate of indirect taxes in OECD countries is 35 per cent, while it is 65 per cent in Turkey,” she explains. “Simply put, we must be compensated for the taxes we pay once we get old. Old people do the work that the government should do: Childcare and patient care rest on our shoulders. Ninety per cent of us share our pensions with our unemployed grandchildren and children,” she continues. “While we were working, we signed a contract. It said we would be provided with economic security and health services after our retirement. We want to be given back. No one should forget that we are not dead yet, we exist!”

Istanbul, Avcılar. A woman over 65 forced off the bus by the bus driver says: 'I have to work, if I don't work I'll starve. I have already cleaned three staircases today. Anyone who forces me to stay at home has to reimburse me for my daily wages.” © P24

The Pandemic Diary Of The Aged 65+ #2: Loneliness Plays The Main Role In The New World’s Goodbyes

It wasn’t the prohibitions nor being alone that affected Tülin Dizdaroğlu (72) the most during the pandemic as much as coping with the loss of her mother, who passed away without being able to see her loved ones. The small crowd deeply hurt her at the funeral, where only three people could gather to pray.

“If it weren’t for the pandemic, I would have taken her to the hospital in the first days of her illness without delay. Had she received treatment earlier, she may have lived a little longer.” This sums up what 72-year-old Tülin Dizdaroğlu has been through during the pandemic. She says that grieving the loss of her mother with two other relatives was a painful experience. Her mother didn’t have the chance to see her loved ones before she died, which saddens her even more.

We met with Dizdaroğlu in Sinop, the Black Sea shore city where Turkey’s largest elderly population reside. You can read the sorrow in her eyes when she tells me how the pandemic changed her and her bedridden mother’s lives so drastically. She recalls that her house was overflowed with people during each holiday, and then came the pandemic with its loneliness. When her mother, who occasionally forgets about the pandemic, asks, “why no one comes anymore?” she is there to answer, always patiently. She knows that social distance is necessary, still thinking about her mother, who couldn’t see her loved ones and relatives before her death breaks her heart.

“It’s the biggest sadness of my life during the pandemic,” she says, taking a deep breath. “I lost my mother in September 2020. She got sick, but I couldn’t take her to the hospital. Everyone warned, ‘she will contract the virus, don’t do it.’ Hospitals were very busy due to the pandemic. The family practitioner came and checked. But after five-six days, she got worse. One night she started to mumble. She said, ‘I’m going to die, don’t be afraid’…” Next was calling for an ambulance, pandemic procedures, tests, intensive care… This conversation with her mom was also the last, but when Dizdaroğlu thinks about what she has been through, she says: “If there wasn’t for the pandemic, I would have taken her to the hospital much earlier, she would receive a timely treatment. She would have lived a little longer…”

Prayer for three

“My aunt, my uncle’s daughter and me…” Dizdaroğlu says before her voice falters and she falls silent again. The sound of a swallowing throat and she proceeds. “Only the three of us prayed. No more than 15 people were able to attend her funeral… These are moments when you want to see a crowd. Family members and friends expressed their condolences on Facebook, by phone. But a large gathering also has an effect on the mourning process. When you talk to everyone, you forget your troubles, and you see that people loved her “...

Although Dizdaroğlu was unable to find solace in a large crowd at the funeral, she forgets her troubles as she laments that many others “went through worse experiences”: “How many doctors and nurses died? How many children were left without parents? They even refused to list the pandemic as an occupational disease. Little children were orphaned… Lots of people suffered.”

“A way to get rid of the elderly”

Dizdaroğlu considers herself lucky for being in Sinop during the pandemic. She couldn’t talk with her relatives and the elderly from the door or the balcony, nor to touch them, but she could at least take walks with the excuse of feeding the cats. She still has ties with Istanbul, where she lived for 45 years, and knows that life there was pretty much congested there. “When I came back, I saw that people in Istanbul were terrified of each other,” she says. “I had friends who never left their home, even to go to the market. They lived a prison life. This also took a toll on their health. My aunt didn’t leave her house for two years. Her mind got foggy because of loneliness.”

“The pandemic has become a way to get rid of the elderly. Even though it is a disease and young people die too,” Dizdaroğlu argues. “The prohibitions imposed on us were unnecessary.”

Dizdaroğlu believes that even after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, new viruses will emerge. “This is no longer the old world,” she says. She thinks that times will come when we won’t be able even to open our windows. That’s why she worries about young people. But don’t think that she considers herself as “old.” In any case, she doesn’t fit the definition of the “ordinary” elder. She didn’t fall into the fear of loneliness or pressure of society to marry and have children. When she retired, she didn’t pull herself away from life, quite on the contrary. At the age of 58, she decided to pursue her passion and got a master’s degree in photography. She travels across Turkey city by city, village by village, taking pictures. She has won awards. She opens exhibitions. She writes books.

Her love for life and passion for photography are both indicators of her youth. “There’s a saying ‘people only as old as they feel’ is very true. I don’t feel old right now. Maybe in the future, I will. People live as long as they have hopes and dreams. Otherwise, you will be a living dead,” she says. “I see 40-year-old teenagers, with their spirits are down. They have no expectations from life whatsoever. I try to live the life that remains to the best of my ability.”

And her eyes shine brightly when she tells me about how she does it. She can’t hide her excitement when she talks about her book titled ‘Alternative Photography,’ one of the few resources on this subject, and the exhibition she will soon open. She is also preparing a black and white album on women in Anatolia. “I have photographed oxcarts for 20 years, and I’m preparing to publish a book called the Last Oxcart. There are still a lot of things I want to do. I have passion and strength too… How much of it the pandemic will allow me, of course, that I don’t know.”

The Pandemic Diary Of The Aged 65+ #3: Facing Scorn For Being A Digital Nomad

Using the Internet for banking transactions, using the state app tracking Covid-19 infection status and getting vaccination appointments… These were all necessary things to do during the lockdown and required to be more technology savvy than the average elder. For Yaşar Gökoğlu, apart from being confined at home, getting used to the digitalization of services was the most challenging part of the pandemic.

“I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen… As such, I demand my rights. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less,” said the protagonist of the acclaimed Ken Loach movie and winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, I, Daniel Blake. He is infuriated for being forced to apply to social welfare institutions after being declared unfit to work. Then begins 59-year-old Blake’s struggle with technology and bureaucracy, a master carpenter who doesn’t want to give up using the pencil… The movie provides one of the best examples about how millions of elderly people who met with technology in their 50s can be “cancelled” by the state, as if pressing a button, unless they learn how to use computers and the Internet.

This is what 72-year-old Yaşar Gökoğlu has experienced during the lockdown. Gökoğlu, who lives in the southern Turkish city of Adana, the pandemic was the beginning of a time during which loneliness was extended to the streets. Before, Gökoğlu used to live loneliness as a “choice” when at home, while he went outside every day to participate in activities or meet friends. When the elderly was banned from going outside, he says, “loneliness took the streets and became social.”

But he particularly worried about “not having the technical knowledge to suppress his loneliness.” He is a digital nomad. As a result, he can’t break through the walls of his home by living in the virtual realm. “I was born in 1949. Considering that the Internet technology arrived in the 90s, I was over 50 when I first met with a computer,” he says. “Getting a ‘HES’ [HES being the abbreviation of “Life Fits Home”, the state app tracking Covid-19 patients across Turkey and ensuring those remained under quarantine] or a doctor appointment was tough.” He doesn’t understand why he faced so much exclusion only for being introduced to technology late in his life: “There was this time when I needed the ‘HES’ code to get on the train, and I needed the help of the station employees. I still remember their scornful glances, as if I had committed a grave misdemeanour.”

Gökoğlu’s struggle with technology was not limited to that. There were many passwords to memorize: e-government [the state-run digital portal which provides citizens administrative services online], ‘HES’ code, bank account password… When he forgets his e-government portal password, he has to pay to renew it over and over again. Since he cannot get his vaccination appointments online, he calls the hotline. But he can only reach them after calling 20 times and waiting for long minutes. “Nobody thought about establishing a unit to help us acquire the know-how to do all these things. Besides, my relationship with technology is better than the average elder due to my computer knowledge while working. If I had such a hard time, I can’t imagine what others went through,” he says. Based on the Turkish Statistical Institute’s (TUIK) data, we can see elders over 65 put a great effort: The proportion of people aged between 65 to 74 using the Internet increased from 5.6 per cent in 2015 to 27.1 per cent in 2020.

Glances questioning why they were out in the streets…

This wasn’t the first time that Gökoğlu grappled with “isolation.” He experienced it first-hand when he served time in prison in 1971 following the military intervention. But, he says this isolation caused by the pandemic feels much more demanding. “Because the pandemic has erected invisible walls in our lives, in addition to the walls of our homes. If there weren’t such age discrimination, we older people, we wouldn’t be living with this feeling of being trapped and banned from life…”

During this time, he tries to protect himself from inactivity as much as possible. With a habit of pacing up and down from prison, he spares a few hours a day to tour his 65 square meter flat. Even though many of his friends tell him to get out and walk around your neighbourhood, he doesn’t do it because he fears that “a tactless person may say something and if you respond, it can escalate.” Even during the few hours when elders are allowed to go out, one cannot escape the glances of people akin to being asked, “what are you doing on the street?”. Being banned from taking the bus, Gökoğlu begins to do some gruelling eight to 10 kilometre walks in Adana, arguably one of the hottest cities in the country. Still, he says, “at least I have gained a solid walking habit”, with the peculiar happiness of people who manage to laugh at life at all costs.

Not “acceptable citizens”

According to Gökoğlu, the elderly were not considered “acceptable citizens” long before the epidemic. Especially those who don’t have a pension to share with their family. The pandemic only showed this more clearly, he says: “The times when the elders are cherished are gone, and nobody had a chance to write a novel on them or even keep statistics!” What remains now is hatred that unites the conservative and the leftist. For instance, a young left-wing friend told him, “These old people! They get on the bus and go until the last stop with a free card and come back; they occupy space for nothing.” He didn’t even think about why they were doing this. But Gökoğlu knows. “There is no place for the elderly in a society where they can go without being despised. So, getting on the bus is the only way for them to socialize.”

Gökoğlu doesn’t understand that while elders are declared the “scapegoats” of the pandemic, how come nothing is being done even though the daily number of deaths reaches 300, and most of those who die are the ones who refuse vaccination. “They made old people look like they were the culprits of the disease for a year. People thought, ‘nothing will happen to us, this is the disease of the elderly.’ This perception has played a part in the current situation in which there are 20 million people who didn’t get their vaccinations. In other words, the reason why young people die is to be found in the discriminatory policies implemented by the government against us,” he says. His dismay is mixed with anger.

Eight years of waiting for nursing homes

When two years ago Gökoğlu asked about the possibility of staying in a nursing home in Adan run by the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Services, the reply said “there are no available places in the next eight years. But there are vacancies in the Gümüşhane and Niğde”. Going to a small province where he didn’t know anyone was not an option. He doesn’t know whether to laugh or get angry at the system that forces him to survive for eight years before living peacefully in his hometown. But there’s one thing that he knows: Old age is unbearable.

“Do you know why?” he asks and gives the answer himself. “The body gets old, but the mind and soul don’t age. I wish the soul would get old too… When you are young, you have dreams, and you don’t worry much even those dreams are out of reach. You tell yourself that ‘I have a long life ahead of me, and if I struggle, I will find a way’. As you get older, your enthusiasm fades. The worst part is that you don’t know how much time you have left,” he says. “There are still things you want to do, desires unfulfilled, but you face physical limits.”

Old age would be more bearable if a central or a local government would eliminate those limits. That’s why it infuriates him so much to see that the administration doesn’t care about the elderly. “The worst part is when you tell people, ‘come on, let’s demand our rights’, they respond ‘whatever.’ Like when they join the union, they can only be convinced when you only tell them that they will earn more money through the collective agreement,” he says. “But when you fight for the rights of the elders, you ask for something uncommon, perhaps something that you won’t be able to benefit from personally.”

During the pandemic, digital technology has been a major obstacle for people over 65. Being unfamiliar with online banking, they also had trouble accessing their salaries. Kemal Ildıran (80) from Hatay/İskenderun, who was not allowed to leave his apartment due to the Corona measures, was caught by the police at the ATM while withdrawing his salary. Ildıran said: "I have no more money, I had to get out. Why else would I go outside?” © P24

The Pandemic Diary Of The Aged 65+ #4: Living With The Pandemic Inside And Outside Of Prison Walls

Selma, Sevinç and Bahadır Altan are siblings, and they got caught in the lockdown in different cities, behind different walls. But the feelings are shared: Apprehension, anger, and indignation. Their story also shows how people coped with the pandemic inside and outside of prison walls 

This time, I will tell you the story of a family. Each member of this family has followed a different path in their lives, but they have never stopped supporting each other... Selma, Sevinç and Bahadır Altan are siblings caught in the lockdown when their lives took different turns. Selma, for instance, was in prison when the pandemic started. Her experience relates the impact of the pandemic on elders over 65 and is also a testament to how harshly authorities can treat the elderly. She tells us about a mindset that doesn’t have any qualms in throwing a 71-year-old woman in prison when she could have been very well released by the court pending a trial. Let me rewind this story and start by introducing you to them.

In complete isolation with the excuse of the pandemic

Selma Altan is a retired human rights advocate and one of the directors of the Association for Assistance and Solidarity with the Families of Detainees and Convicts in the Aegean Region (Ege TUHAYDER). Her sister Sevinç Altan is a painter who has held exhibitions in many cities across Turkey and created more than 600 cover illustrations for various publishing houses. Their brother Bahadır Altan is a retired pilot who was fired from his job for making critical public statements following the crash of a Pegasus plane during landing in Istanbul on 6 February 2020.

The biggest uneasiness caused by the pandemic for the Altan siblings, just like for everyone else, was the apprehension they felt for their loved ones. “I lost two friends. It was tough not to be able to touch and hug people I love,” says Sevinç Altan. “Furthermore, my sister was in prison and suffered from health problems. I was increasingly worried about her. They used the pandemic as an excuse in prisons to establish complete isolation, despite being considered a crime against humanity. Not being able to visit her was hard to bear.” The isolation was so strict that neither could send or receive messages and information.

The reason why Selma Altan went to prison at the age of 71? She explains: “I was detained on 11 November 2019, the night when I travelled to Istanbul intending to have prosthetics placed on my knees. The anti-terrorism unit of İzmir Police was apparently surveilling me as they considered the state-approved NGO I was a member as a ‘so-called association’ [involved in surreptitious activities].” She was subsequently sent to Şakran Prison, near İzmir. “I couldn’t walk properly. I had help from the friends I made inside the prison. I was released after seven-and-a-half months by the court pending a trial.” She experienced the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns while still in jail. “When the pandemic started, prison facilities were as confused as the state. An appropriate policy is still not in place. Using the pandemic as an excuse, they pushed isolation a bit too far. Even closed visitations were restricted. Everything has reopened outside, people are flocking to shopping malls, but open visitations are still forbidden in most prisons.”

So, what precautions are taken in prison against the pandemic? “They were saying that hygiene is important, but there were 19 women in my ward. They didn’t even provide enough detergent for cleaning. We had to buy it with our money,” Selma Altan says. “The prices of hygiene items increased tremendously after the pandemic. Not counting that prison canteens where you buy these products are twice as expensive than outside! Prisoners who were sick suffered the most. They were not sent to the hospital. Even those who couldn’t walk for a year or needed back surgery were kept waiting. Before cancer patients or those who suffered chronic diseases were taken to the hospital, they were kept in a separate ‘quarantine’ room. When someone returned from the hospital, they were also put in the same room. So the quarantine is constantly getting longer for them; some people ended up staying isolated 14+14+14 days. A poorly-equipped and dirty room.” This leads them to cohabit in more crowded quarters. “They increased the number of people in the wards so that they could open extra space for that room. The concept of distance outside has turned into congestion in prisons. I know that there are lots of people who contracted Covid-19 in prisons in Menemen, Şakran and Ödemiş around İzmir.”

The new world: An open prison

Selma Altan was released from prison in June 2020. Even though she only spent seven-and-a-half months inside, a pandemic that occurs once in a century changed the world outside tangibly: People wearing masks, “safe social distance” signs, “HES” codes [HES being the abbreviation of “Life Fits Home”, the state app tracking Covid-19 patients across Turkey and ensuring those remained under quarantine] which can track our activity any time, helping to feel protected, socialization that in the scale mobile phone screen…

In addition to all that, she also dealt with health problems: “I have cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. I underwent knee surgery 14 days after being released. I was in bed for two months, my daughter and brother looked after me. Right when I got up, a two-week lockdown was announced,” she says. “It was like an open prison. Nobody could come, I couldn’t go out. At least in prison, you are sharing your word with 19 other people. Outside you are more isolated. Three friends of mine died after suffering a heart attack. It was because due to inactivity during the prohibitions targeting the elders.” 

Her brother Bahadır Altan “dodged” the prohibitions for over 65 by just one year. He is a close witness of rights violations, though, having observed what her sisters and his circle of friends have been through. He argues that capitalism, which cuts down the tree whose shade it can’t sell, doesn’t see the death of the retired pensioner as a loss: “They may even set an age limit in the future, saying ‘you are now 85 years old, I will stop providing you health services and paying a pension. If this mindset lasts long enough, I fear it will limit life too.” 

We are not there yet, but for now, this mindset certainly can restrict their freedom without being questioned. In fact, this is what bothers Sevinç Altan the most. “The thought that our lives fell into the hands of a few men was frightening, and not the virus itself”, she says. “For example, nobody explained why going outside of our homes between 8:01 p.m. and 9.59 a.m. could have negative consequences for ourselves and society,” she muses. “They closed the parks but kept the factories open! It was mind-boggling to see that being old was criminalized to the point of being pursued by the police. The situation at ‘nursing homes’ was taxing; they didn’t even take a moment to look at it.”

Sevinç Altan is aware that she is one of the lucky few who could “stay at home” -as the government’s pandemic awareness slogan- during all this time. “However, while these calls to ‘stay at home’ or that ‘life fits home’ were made for flats with a view of the Bosporus, there were plenty of people forced to go to work, and so many who ‘couldn’t stay at home even if they were old,” she says. “People whose sickness or death was not considered important…” More women and children were left alone with violence at home, she notes and continues: “This system based on growth didn’t stop at any cost. Just like when other disasters happened, during the pandemic, the main thinking was to ask, ‘what’s the economic value?’ This is why when they say that the government failed to manage the pandemic, it doesn’t mean anything to me. They ruled as they wanted.”

The lack of adequate support for people without a regular income is proof that the state doesn’t care about their citizens but instead focuses on keeping the wheels turning. Sevinç Altan is one of the millions of people who don’t have a regular income: “I didn’t have any problems in the beginning since I could make a living with my savings. But it became tougher when the two exhibitions I was organizing were cancelled due to the pandemic. Still, it’s not even worth mentioning when you think about people with children who lost their jobs and had to make ends meet or even those who committed suicide.”

Bahadır Altan says prohibitions for elders broke the bond between the historically significant 68 or 78 generations, who are now over the age of 65, and the Z generation. This amounts to trying to erase social memory, he argues. Yet, some good things happen too. For Altan, one of the most significant gains is the solidarity networks established in the neighbourhoods. “They showed a much more committed will to live than the state,” he says.

Sevinç Altan has long ceased to hope from the government or the state. She offers instead to lend an ear to Paul B. Preciado, philosopher and academic, who says that humanity should, in fact, learn from the virus about coping with crises and “disasters”, which governments like to feed on. “Just as the virus mutates, if we want to resist submission, we must also mutate”, Preciado writes and carries on as follows: “Our health will not come from a border or separation, but only from a new understanding of community with all living creatures, a new sharing with other beings on the planet.”

We are not old, but the state is

Sevinç Altan says that news about the coronavirus and statements coming from the authorities have fueled the already existing racism and ageism in Turkish society. This is why she says, “discrimination is like a virus that mutates and, unfortunately, this is a very fertile region for such things to occur.” She also argues that the government overlooked that the elderly are not homogeneous. “Not every adult over the age of 65 has a chronic disease. Not all of them have an addiction. The same as there are elders who are active in social life, the number of those who have to work is not that low. Me, for example.”

For Sevinç Altan, old age means slowing down a little, but not in a negative way. It even gives you comfort if you don’t have health issues: “It’s either not caring about every damn thing or involving yourself with it at ease. For instance, I can curse more comfortably.” Her brother Bahadır Altan says the year that figures on his birth certificate does not mean anything. “Some may be old at 60, but others continue learning and being productive even in their eighties. The measures they took during the pandemic though showed old age as if it meant decay and neediness,” he says before quoting these verses from the celebrated poet and author Nâzım Hikmet: “...but we can’t possibly get old -we need another term for sagging flesh- because people are old only if they love no one but themselves.” “As long as you love someone or something, as long as you have an idea or desire that helps you to resist, you don’t get old,” Bahadır Altan says. His following words are like a response to the government’s attitude against them: “We should say ‘you are old’ to the state trying to make us feel old. The state is ancient, with its palaces and high offices... We should imprison the state in those places and let the streets be filled with children, youth, women and elders. I think if new restrictions are to be implemented, elders should remain in the streets and tell the state ‘no, you are old’.”

The Altan family siblings
The three siblings Selma, Sevinç and Bahadır Altan © P24

The Pandemic Diary Of The Aged 65+ #5: Elder Law Must Be Part Of The Solution

How painful it is to suffer discrimination, Cafer Tufan Yazıcıoğlu knows it well. This is why he actively works to establish an Elder Law under the Turkey legislation. You may think that he seeks to protect his own right, while in fact, he is fighting for the future elders, namely us.

Cafer Tufan Yazıcıoğlu, is a 70-year-old lawyer. He lives in Ankara with his wife. He is a legal advisor to the Turkish Pensioners’ Association (TÜED). He used to go to work, regularly exercise, spend time with his friends, and, so to say, lived an “active old age” until the pandemic interrupted it, cutting through like a knife. Though he could avoid falling into a void all this time, courtesy of working from home, he misses the streets and his loved ones. “My son works in a different city. We haven’t been able to see each other,” he says. “Not meeting my brother, friends, relatives, and coping with the longing was difficult. We could only greet from our balcony people and a few friends who were taking a walk.”

For people over 65, the remaining time is valuable. The clock is now running backwards. This is what the pandemic has stolen from them, entire days, months or years that could be spent with their loved ones… Having conversations with their children, playing with their grandchildren, and gathering with friends around a meal… Worst of all, it stole the last farewells to friends, their number shrinking each year, like old leaves falling down. “Not being able to attend their funerals feels like a bleeding wound,” Yazıcıoğlu says. “We only have a few friends left, as the majority of them has already gone. These farewells were important for us, but we couldn’t make it…” Silence breaks in. For a moment, those who passed away interrupt the conversation. He takes a breath and continues: “During the pandemic, the physical and psychological wellbeing of elders were both affected.

Increase in hate speech

Yazıcıoğlu concedes that curfews involving people over 65 are a method of protection. But the lack of clear legal regulation, he says, has created problems. “For instance, we couldn’t go get our salary after we were banned from public buses. There should have been an alternative. Our members went through a lot. And the numbers of swindling cases have increased,” he says.

He argues that such tragedies will occur more frequently. This is why he emphasizes that the Parliament should make a new and holistic law addressing these issues the elderly face. “They are already late,” he says. “We discussed the pandemic a lot this year at the UN Committee on the Rights of the Elderly, which also includes TÜED. I think a set of new rights related to pandemics and epidemics will be included among the articles on the rights of the elderly that the committee will soon publish. We will be talking about the rights of the elderly just like human rights.”

Indeed, increasing hate speech towards elders shows how necessary this has become. Many TÜED members have expressed their outcry: They not merely face abusive remarks but are overtly insulted and slandered on social media. They have to confront disapproving stares on the streets, making them feel not wanted, or people even literally chase them after… For Yazıcıoğlu, this sort of behaviour is the result of statements from officials and media outlets, which constantly lack a scientific basis. “Hate speech is a crime. The Turkish Penal Code and the Civil Code have important provisions that protect the elderly. Prosecutors could refer to these stipulations to file a complaint if they wanted to,” he says. “Our association published the first textbook on Elder Law. I have documented every provision specifically related to the elderly in Turkey. It all adds up to 2,000 pages. But as the provisions are scattered across different legal codes, outlining an elder law is indispensable.”

Local authorities across Turkey have also failed the elderly during the pandemic, Yazıcıoğlu says. These administrations know where people aged over 65 live, hence are more adept in solving any problems. Old age is a stage that everyone will eventually reach. Everyone knows. But for some reason, people don’t discuss it much, nor are there many studies treating the subject. According to Yazıcıoğlu, this may be the good side of the pandemic, despite the hate speech propagated. “At least the elderly is on the agenda,” he exclaims.

All in all, this is a heartbreaking thing to say. But old age is such a muffled topic that the simple fact that people start talking about it, and it becomes visible, even if it is because of the pandemic and the insults they faced, is considered as a positive and a hopeful thing. “We have never had as many meetings with the government, with NGOs in Turkey and around the world, or with UN initiatives as well,” says Yazıcıoğlu. “We attended more than 300 meetings in the last two years. This shows that old people are increasingly more on the agenda. Yes, we may have faced hate speech, but overall I think that a good step was taken for future elders.”

The future elders Yazıcıoğlu refers to are you, us, the middle-aged, the youth… Activists over the age of 65 who work on this issue know that they are part of a struggle they likely won’t be able to see the end of. But just like childhood and youth, old age is a stage in life and ensuring that people can enjoy their lives is a human right. “The pandemic has clearly shown the effects of age discrimination on the elderly,” says Yazıcıoğlu. “It is absolutely necessary for Turkey to align themselves with policies such as the European Union Age Equality Strategy, which aims to guarantee equal rights for elders concerning lifelong education, access to health and care services, social protection, and work. We are fighting for it right now, but I don’t think it will be implemented soon enough for us to see. That is why I always tell young people to support this effort, because it’s actually for you, not for us.”

Quiet places of the pandemic: Nursing homes

A total of 27,454 people live in 425 nursing homes and elderly rehabilitation centres affiliated to the Ministry of Family and Social Services spread across Turkey. However, there is no information on how many people received Covid-19 treatment and how many died in nursing homes. Despite the Turkish Medical Association’s call for transparency motions files by lawmakers at the Parliament, the ministry stood away from disclosing the numbers. All we know comes from a few news stories that appeared in the media: Nearly 40 people tested positive in a private nursing home in Etiler, Istanbul. In eastern Turkey, at the Memnune Evsen Nursing Home in Bayburt, 27 residents and eight personnel were infected with coronavirus... In the west, at the Hacı Süleyman Çakır Nursing Home in Eskişehir, close to ten people died from Covid...

Using the right to information, I requested the numbers related to Covid-19 in nursing homes filing three separate applications to the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Family and Social Services through the online RTI system. One of the answers said, in a nutshell: “Sharing this information falls under the competence of the General Directorate of Disabled and Elderly Services of our Ministry of Family and Social Services. However, the required information being outside the scope of the Law on the Right to Information, we couldn’t answer your request.”

Officials at the ministry’s directorate must have been so exasperated by our persistent applications that they ended up sending a three pages-long response to another of our requests, entitled “Actions Taken During Covid-19”. The content, however, was unrelated to our questions. And still, there was no single data in it! To understand what happened in nursing homes, the only solution left was to scan the media. I also contacted Kemal Sayılır, a lawyer representing the family of a person who died from Covid-19 at the Hacı Süleyman Çakır Nursing Home in Eskişehir.

Sayılır explains that the disease spread after one of the nursing home’s staff was infected on 8 April 2020. The same week, 47 nursing home residents and 28 members of staff were diagnosed with the virus. It happened, Sayılır said, because the proper measures were not adopted. “The acting director of the institution at the time [identified as MT due to legal restrictions] was an inexperienced deputy director. It was almost as if he couldn’t take any decision by himself. He could only take action under the guidance of the provincial director and his assistants. The number of people staying in the same room wasn’t reduced. Residents who went to the hospital were not isolated after they came back,” he said. 

The number of deaths differs according to reports. Some mention 10 Covid-related deaths, while others put the number around 20. According to Sayılır, the correct number is 20. “But only ten people’s death was officially reported as being caused by Covid-19 -- nine residents and the father of my client, Sadık Kaya, a member of the staff. By doing so, they were trying to avoid attracting more attention,” Sayılır said.

Relatives fear suing the nursing home

Sadık Kaya was 57-year-old and suffered from obesity, chronic diabetes and blood pressure. He wasn’t allowed to take leave despite a presidential decree making it mandatory that “anyone with a chronic illness shall be considered in an administrative provided that they notify their superiors.” This decree was somehow overruled at the time by the provincial head of the Family, Labor and Social Services Directorate in Eskişehir -- identified with his initials A.S. due to legal restrictions -- who issued a board decision requiring people with chronic diseases to submit three concurring medical reports in order to take administrative leave. All provincial officials signed the decision. Kaya, who contracted Covid-19 while working, was taken to the hospital on 10 April 2020 and died after 26 days of treatment.

During the initial investigation, the responsibility is placed upon the institution’s health officer (identified as A.M.Ç. in the prosecution files) and the nurse (identified as N.E. in the prosecution files). However, Sayılır’s legal objections to the findings of the investigation and the media coverage of the deaths led the governor of Eskişehir to launch a new investigation into the case. “The Governor’s Office authorized senior administrators -- both A.S., provincial head of the Family, Labor and Social Services Directorate in Eskişehir, and M.T., the director of the nursing home – to be investigated as part of the case. They had been virtually acquitted in the previous investigation. Although they filed an objection to the decision, the Regional Administrative Court of Ankara has rendered its definitive approval,” Sayılır said. He said they demanded the prosecutor to press charges of “gross negligence manslaughter” and “misconduct”. “The indictment is being prepared. The date of a hearing has not been set because we’re still not in the judgment phase.”

Sadık Kaya’s case is the only lawsuit filed in connection to the deaths in nursing homes. But Sayılır is hopeful. “Although family members of nursing home residents who died are afraid, some expressed their support. I think once the trial is underway may become a party or testify at the court. Some relatives even said they would do so.”

Cafer Tufan Yazıcıoğlu
Cafer Tufan Yazıcıoğlu © P24

Covid-19 pandemic and curfews have caused the increase of elders who thought about suicide among her patients, says psychiatrist Özlem Erden Aki who specialized in geriatric psychology. She also notes a faster progression of mental impairments in patients suffering from dementia.

Cases of depression have increased. Anxiety disorders have become more common. Some patients suffering from dementia got in an advanced stage much faster, the progression taking only five-six months, where it usually took two or three years. Associate Professor Özlem Erden Aki, a lecturer at the Psychiatry Department of the Hacettepe University and specializing in geriatric psychology, explains that the pandemic and the curfew applied for elders were the sources of many psychological disorders. “Some of my older patients have become more depressed. The number of people contemplating suicide increased,” she said. Erden Aki, who also leads the Geriatric Psychiatry Working Group at the Psychiatry Association of Turkey, gives us more insight into the pandemic’s and the government’s measures effects on elders in this interview.

- How were elders affected by the pandemic?

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the elderly were seen as expendable all over the world. In Italy, age was considered a criterion for admission to intensive care units in hospitals. People were abandoned to death in nursing homes in Europe. There have been so many unethical practices… In the capitalist world, ageing is considered a massive problem because the system is based on consumption. The elderly, however, is a group that doesn’t consume. They are working hard to make them consume more, such as putting anti-ageing health products and services on the market. But because they are not active in working life, they aren’t considered essential to ensure the continuity of the system.

- Old people all over the world were forced to stay at home more frequently due to the pandemic. In Turkey, however, the government also imposed bans. People over 65 weren’t allowed to go out on the streets or use public transport. How did these prohibitions affect them?

Many elders felt worthless or treated like a child. The elderly in Turkey were aware that they weren’t valued in this system for a while now, but the pandemic made it more explicit. Doing the research, I couldn’t find any other country that applied a curfew for people aged over 65. In a European country, they implemented the following: Three or five days per week, banks and public institutions served only people over 65 between 10 a.m. in the morning and noon. It ensured they contacted fewer people and avoided groups of younger people who could spread the disease without showing any symptoms. Such measures could have been taken here too. Even during shorter curfews, many old people’s diet, ability to walk and move, and mental health deteriorated.

- What kind of psychological problems did people suffer from in particular?

Cases of anxiety and depression increased at a tremendous rate. People were worried that they would get infected and would not get help, becoming a burden to their relatives… Elders have a lot of common sense. They fear the most to become a burden or to infect their children with the disease. Some of my older patients became more depressed. I have had new patients who developed anxiety disorders. The number of people contemplating suicide increased.

Diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia are also seemingly increasing…

The worst affected group among elders were dementia patients. Some patients got in an advanced stage in five-six months, where it usually took two or three years. Patients who were in pre-dementia stages have also rapidly developed dementia. Their memory, cognitive and reasoning skills declined.

- Being isolated played a big part in this, I guess.

Isolation, immobility, lack of stimulation... Before their relatives and their children would visit them. Their caregivers took them to the park. Even for a short time, going out is invaluable for the elderly. It is a cognitively stimulating activity and allows them to get some sunshine. It also prevents muscle loss. All of this stopped. The number of things that used to provide them sensory stimulation hugely decreased.

- It should have also been hard for the patients’ relatives. Have any of them asked for support?

After many relatives fired non-resident caregivers, fearing they would bring the disease and infect their parents, all the burden fell on their own shoulders. Their anxiety increased a lot as they often felt exhausted. Patients became irritated when they stayed with just one other person at home. Patients suffering from dementia don’t understand or can quickly forget when they are told, “we can’t go out because there’s a pandemic,” and “you shouldn’t touch the money,” “you shouldn’t get close to people.” We had to desist from our usual recommendations such as “take them out every three or four days” or “call your parents’ friends, enrol them to courses.” We relied too much on drugs, which created other problems, undoubtedly… Apart from the elderly, people suffering from severe mental disorders went through a tough time. People with psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia couldn’t see their doctors and access treatments easily. Some had relapses.

- Are there patients who have problems getting back to their daily lives even though the curfews are lifted?

There is still a small group who can’t leave their home. They don’t even go to the grocery store, they are afraid. When the pandemic first started, we thought it would last for two months, and we would continue from where we left off. But now that we are approaching the end of 2021, the future is still unclear. Society needs to learn to live with this uncertainty.

- After bans and statements by public officials, elders were perceived as being “dangerous” rather than “in danger”. What were the consequences for the elderly?

We asked patients over 65 who were monitored at the Psychiatric Department of Hacettepe University how much discrimination they felt during the pandemic compared to before. The amount of discrimination during the pandemic, as it transpired, has increased exponentially. People literally hunting for old people in the streets, chasing them if they didn’t wear masks… We often say that we are a country attached to its traditions, that we love the elderly. But we have painfully deplorably seen that this is not the case.

Discrimination based on age wasn’t something we used to talk and think about much until the pandemic.

Speaking of discrimination, other aspects such as gender, sexual orientation and race come to mind, and it always implies the idea of an “other.” For instance, you will never be black. However, the issue with age discrimination is different: If we are lucky enough, we will someday be in the group we are discriminating against today. It’s therefore a strange kind of discrimination. Such a common one but also so invisible… The visibility it got during the pandemic can be good to confront the issue. We will also become old, this is reason enough to defend the rights of the elderly.

- Why are we trying to ignore old age, which is inevitable?

It is something that the new world order has imposed on us. It’s not just about ageing; we act negatively towards anything we think isn’t fast enough. A recent and popular definition describes the rapidly ageing world population: “The grey tsunami.” Ageing has been identified with and named after a disaster, bringing destruction.

It is important to be a self-sufficient, mentally sound, healthy elder who can take care of their business, but doing so requires proper conditions starting from a young age. The poorer you are, the likely unhealthier you will be when getting old. When you eat poorly and work in hard labour jobs, not only does poverty bend your back, but you can’t have any money to save for old age as what you earn can only save your day. Capitalism says ageing healthily is in your hands, you should drive this and eat this… If you are old and sick, it becomes your fault. The poor always pay the bill. However, the state has to take care of every elder, or rather everyone who pays their taxes and are in need.

- Despite being very proud of its young population, Turkey is getting older. Do you think that we are ready for this?

The Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Family and Social Services are working on this question. There has been some progress regarding nursing homes and home services. Municipalities are doing more in this area, including house cleaning, regular food service, haircuts… There should be a larger number of daycare centres where elders could go in the morning and return home in the evening, where they can enjoy proper sensory-stimulating activities. The steps being undertaken are primarily related to health, but we are not well prepared in other areas.

The Pandemic Diary Of The Aged 65+ #7: Fear Of Ageing Feeds Hatred For The Elders

Not only hate speech towards the elders increased during the pandemic, but prejudices manifested in acts. “Ageism will soon be one of Turkey’s biggest problems,” says sociologist Özgür Arun.

“They said ‘we caught a virus’ and poured cologne on their heads,” or “A” or “Elderly sitting on bench kindly but firmly warned with water,” “We can’t keep grandparents at home”, and “Watch how a 75-year-old grandmother escapes from lockdown by climbing the wall like a spider.” These are some examples of headlines endorsing discrimination towards elders. According to sociologist Özgür Arun, an associate professor at the Department of Gerontology of Akdeniz University in the Mediterranean city of Antalya, the more visibility the elderly have in Turkey, the more significant discrimination they face. One of the primary sources of ageism is fear of getting old, Arun says. Images of destituteness and helplessness that are constantly assimilated with elders also play a part. The system today does its best to generate more similar images. Arun, who is also the Board Director of the Senex Association for Ageing Studies Association, tells us more about the rising ageism in Turkey.

- What should we understand when we say ageism?

This is a very insidious form of discrimination. It can target both older and younger people, can be directed to children or elders. But it can also target one’s own age group. Fear of ageing has a specific form, that includes avoiding older people, resisting ageing, exclusion, stigmatization, showing contempt, overgeneralization, and condescension. It is a major issue that causes substantial economic losses, conflicts between generations, and negatively affects social peace.

Turkish people pride themselves on showing respect to elders. But the pandemic is proving that this isn’t true...

The claim that “Turks love and protect their elders” is an urban legend. When we look at the archetypes, older people in Turkey are often described as destitute, with falling teeth and bent backs. The image of the elder is based on the poor. All these social images lead to exclusion. For a long time now, our research has shown that both the government and local administrations have systematically discriminated against older people, which can also be seen in citizens' attitudes. The pandemic has only made it more visible.

- What happened during the pandemic that caused elders to be perceived as “dangerous” and increased discrimination?

Initial findings [with respect to Covid-19] indicated that elders were at risk. People called on authorities to protect them. However, comments abounded on how the elders were more prone to be infected and spread the virus; those who were considered “at risk” became “dangerous.” Policymakers, “experts”, and media had a big responsibility in this. Statements made by officials have turned the elders into a virus. The language used in the media has also resulted in elders being criminalized more often. They were stigmatized. Discriminatory attitudes towards elders were reflected in behaviours during the pandemic.

- What kind of behaviours? Can you give an example?

There was one municipality that established a tip line for elders! People were called upon. Some started resorting to physical violence against elders, justifying their acts through the discriminatory discourses and practices put in place by public institutions and organizations. People would stop them in the streets, abuse them. In the region of Thrace, Western Turkey, one mayor threatened them, saying, “don’t go out on the street, don’t push your luck.” One of the things that I found the most astonishing was the case of an elderly couple who wasn’t allowed to get married in Manavgat, Antalya. Authorities refused to officiate their wedding because “they weren’t allowed to go out.” When the government announced bans, NGOs and relevant associations sadly ignored old women, old workers, and old people who were poverty-stricken.

We started publishing a report on “Monitoring Violence and Violations Against the Elderly” in 2021. Every month, we observe an average of 150 cases of violence, neglect and abuse involving elders, half of which result in death. To give an example, the children of an 80-year-old woman in Mardin realized that she didn’t have an ID. She spent her entire life with the disadvantage of lacking identification papers, and her children have only noticed this now.

- What kind of changes regarding age discrimination before and after the pandemic do research show?

According to a research conducted by the YADA Foundation (Yaşama Dair Vakıf) in 2019, called the “research on representations and practices of old age in Turkey,” showed that ageism against people over the age of 65 was around 6.5 per cent. The results of the “survey on ageing in Antalya” conducted every three years indicate that age discrimination rose to 11 per cent in 2020, from 7 per cent in 2016 and 4 per cent in 2013. But especially for the less educated and poorest group, the number rose to 18 per cent. In other words, old people who are poor, particularly old people with disabilities and widowed women, are experiencing ageism in its most devastating form. At Senex, we recently conducted a study by scanning six major newspapers between January and June 2020 entitled “rights violations and discriminatory practices towards the elderly in Covid-19 related news.” We observed that discriminatory language was employed regarding older people and ageing in 85 per cent of news on this subject. Ageism will soon be a significant issue in Turkey.

- How is this discrimination fed?

Ageism is a form of discrimination linked to social, economic and cultural processes and one of the tragic results of capitalist modernization. Everything that covers-up ageing and old age, each behaviour pattern assuming that old people are all similar causes discrimination. Even the approach you predominantly see in academic studies reproduces this discrimination.

- Fear of ageing is also one of the triggers in this hatred, I think. 

This is an important aspect of age discrimination. People want to have a long life and not grow old. But, looking at the current macroeconomic parameters, the next generation of elders in Turkey will, unfortunately, be poorer. Each day, more young people who work in temporary jobs join the multitudes ageing with rising inequality. They will likely not be able to have the social security rights and all-inclusive care services their parents had. Even young people from the middle class today will not be able to maintain their economic status and will become poorer. In the near future, we will see more impoverished elders with a higher level of education. Turkey’s problem is not getting old but getting old before getting wealthy. The conflict between generations and ageism is going to rise. The visibility that old people will get will increase younger people’s fear of ageing.

- What are the most urgent measures that should be taken against ageism?

There are three critical steps to be taken at a structural level. Firstly, legislation. Secondly, monitoring and evaluation. We are the only country in Europe that doesn’t conduct national and periodic surveys on ageing. A study on ageing should be included in the statistics program of the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK). And thirdly, the Turkish National Institute on Ageing should be established as an autonomous entity to organize all these tasks. As for local administrations, they need contingency plans. They should focus on services based on rights instead of needs that ultimately condemn people to poverty. Councils of elders should also be established alongside councils of women, youth and children. At Senex, we provide support to municipalities through experts and scheduled programs. The only condition we require from them is issuing a decision at the municipal council to become a member of the WHO Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities.

Motherly, benevolent and arrogant discrimination

Özgür Arun says talking about people who discriminate is as important as talking about discrimination itself. “Or else they become invisible like the ‘monster’ of inflation,” he says. Then, who are these people? Arun says that there are three patterns of behaviour based on the conclusion of the Survey on Ageing conducted in Antalya: 

1- Motherly discrimination: People talking to their elders as if they were talking to babies, thinking they are incapable of understanding them. This group could become age-friendly with some guidance. 

2- Benevolent discrimination: We saw this category of people a lot during the pandemic. They act with the bias that the elderly are destitute and ailing. They take old people’s tasks upon themselves, even though nobody wants them to. The behaviour, indifferent to social status, is the first step towards social exclusion. Their attitudes can be changed.

3- Arrogant discrimination: It is the most dangerous group. They are afraid of spending time with old people because they are too afraid of getting old. They condemn older people’s behaviours, ideas and identities to the point of excluding them. They show a tendency toward physical and psychological violence. They are difficult to transform. The most worrying thing about them is that they will continue to behave the same way as they get older.

 

Özgür Arun
Özgür Arun, Board Director of the Senex Association for Ageing Studies Association © P24

The Pandemic Diary Of The Aged 65+ #8: Eight Million Invisible People

Ageism is no different from cutting the branch you are sitting on: Because, contrary to other forms of discrimination, sooner or later will all be part of this group. If, of course, we are lucky enough to ever get old in this country.

As of September 2021, 209 cases of violence, neglect and abuse were recorded against old people, half of which resulted in death. According to the monthly report “Monitoring Violence and Violations Against the Elderly” issued by Senex, this is the reality of a country that supposedly “takes care of and respects its elders”... When I decided to write an article series on the pandemic and how it affected people over the age of 65, I didn’t expect such an extent of right violations and discrimination. And I never thought that I also played a part in it. So, I’m writing this as it were a confession, an apology. As an author who has written a book on hate crimes, I now know how I turned a blind eye to the elderly. I also know that there is an answer when people ask, “why do seniors take the bus so much?”. They take the bus so much because old people don’t have a better option for socializing than using their free public transport card and seeing human faces on the bus. Even this was taken away from them during the pandemic.

Nearly eight million people over the age of 65 were imprisoned in their homes for 16 months, except for a few hours during which they could go out in the streets because of an inhuman decision. As if they didn’t have the “intelligence” to protect themselves as if they didn’t know how to survive… Among them, some people had to work. That’s the reason why, like many people I talked to, the image that stuck on my mind during the pandemic was the cry of an old woman while being shoved off from a public bus saying, “I cleaned three blocks of stairs. If I don’t work, I will be hungry.”

We are all responsible for committing this crime

“The elderly should be protected” was the byword at the beginning of the pandemic, but it suddenly came to be perceived as “the elderly are dangerous.” As a result, old people were chased in the streets, insulted and ill-treated… But when elders started to talk, we realized that the hatred had always been there; the pandemic only brought it under the spotlight. That’s why people I spoke with say that now they are being visible, despite the many insults and hatred. As a matter of fact, old age and aversion towards old people are condemned to a silence the entire society concurs.

So, what is the reason behind this hate? In this system built on speed and consumption, slowing down leads to being ignored. As if that wasn’t enough, old people don’t consume enough. Furthermore, when capitalism offers people myriad ways to stay young through youth creams and healthy living trends, they are shamelessly ageing! This, in turn, raises fears. In other words, ageism is a crime we are all responsible for committing. But doing so is no different from cutting the branch you are sitting on: Because, contrary to other forms of discrimination, you will all be part of this group sooner or later. If, of course, we are lucky enough to ever get old in this country.

Turkey, a country that prides itself on its young population, is ageing. According to the 2020 statistics of the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK), the ratio of the population over 65 increased by 22.5 per cent in the last five years. In 2015 there were 6 million 495 thousand 239 people aged over 65. It rose to 7 million 953 thousand 555 in 2020. In the meantime, I have bad news for you. Research also shows that Turkey’s population is not only getting older but also getting poorer. This means that our generation will experience old age under much worse conditions than our parents. So, either start making some noise now or prepare yourself for an old age during which you will face much more severe hate speech. The choice is yours!

Not everyone forgot old people

You now know what elders suffered from during the pandemic. However, that’s not to say that nothing was done. There were organizations and people who didn’t leave elders over 65 alone during the pandemic. Below are two examples.

The first one is the Active Ageing Movement Workshop. Its creator, Filiz Sızanlı is one of the founders of Dans Daima (Always Dance) in Eskişehir. Her workshop, organized with the municipality’s support, has been like a breeze of fresh air for people aged 65 and over during the pandemic. Not merely limited to physical therapy movements, the workshop is a much deeper exercise intending to increase bodily awareness and improve participation in life. Sızanlı knows that people aged 65 and over are the most in need of movement during the lockdown. “Curfews and the increase of pressure on their bodies have accelerated ageing,” she says.” “It dashed their hopes of life. That’s why working with the elderly was so important for us.”

The workshop began with 20 people in an open space. But with time, more people came in. What kind of people joined? “Architects, retirees, housewives… They become equals, just like children who play on the street. They become equal in this space, not because of their backgrounds or what they do in life, but through their relationship with life past that age,” Sızanlı explains.” “Through the workshop, we are giving people a glimpse into the body they have built over the years. Their own bodies are something they are usually unfamiliar with. It is difficult to convince people to lay down on the floor, stand barefoot, and touch each other’s bodies. But their excitement and eagerness are still there. Those who do the workshop usually tell us that they felt as if embarked on a new journey with their bodies, and they glanced anew to movements that used to cause them pain.”

According to Sızanlı, these workshops should be popularized. Though there are workshops for children in Turkey, the elderly are pushed away and left aside. “Society excludes, ostracizes the elderly claiming that they can’t do anything anymore. But they have an incredibly vast imagination and creativity. We should think about how we can include it in our cultural policies. It finds that helping the elders be heard and more visible very valuable,” she said.

Another good example is the 65+ Elder Rights Association, which has been advocating for the rights of elders since 2014. Even though many didn’t know the meaning of 65+ in their logo at the time, this concept became a part of our lives during the pandemic. The director of the association, Rümeyza Kazancıoğlu knows that even though the elderly are associated with vulnerability and grief in Turkey, the reality is much different. “Some elders are extremely active, involved with life and have much more energy than we do,” she said. “Growing old is part of our reality. We want a right of elders which is valued, helping everyone to accept this reality and grow old under equal conditions and healthily. One of these rights is digital literacy. The association thereby decided even before the pandemic to start the ‘Digital Inclusion Project for 65+’ with the support of the EU. As progress was happening fast worldwide, we thought that no age group should be excluded from technology. Thus, we wanted to undertake a project on digital literacy.”

Kazancığlu said that the pandemic helped them better understand how much each of us lacked enough skills in this field. “The project became, therefore, even more important. Our goal was to do face-to-face training, but due to the pandemic, we will carry them out using technology. The training will be provided by young people. This way, we will ensure that different generations can get together, understand and engage with each other. We also provide training on financial literacy,” she said.

Kazancıoğlu argued that confining the elderly to their home in the pandemic is wrong. The one thing officials forgot when they lifted the curfew during a short window each day is that “old people move at a certain speed and they had a hard time keeping up with the time limitation.” They had even slowed down due to sitting at home for months,” she said.

Elder’s problems aren’t much discussed, unfortunately. “For instance,” Kazancıoğlu said, “we refer to child abuse, but doesn’t elder abuse exist? Nursing homes and caregivers are other issues needing to be addressed.” There are so many issues waiting to be dealt with, Kazancıoğlu said. “We talk about the issues of children because we consider them our future. But as we don’t expect elders to be part of a future, are people intending to say devil may care what happens to them?”

The association for the rights of over 65s is committed to raising awareness of financial literacy. This public advertisement warning older people about scammers was produced by the association. © P24