Cocooning and the prevalent impact on the local community

Athlone IT lecturer in the Department of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure, Joe Tierney, has penned a research editorial pertaining to cocooning during the present COVID-19 pandemic and the impact upon six members of the local community as he ascertained their pertinent views on the issue.

“Age is just a number” a familiar quote used by many including Joan Collins who suggested that “age is just a number, unless you’re a good wine”.

However, where COVID-19 is concerned the age 70 is when you must stay home and avoid human contact! This is far from ideal and does not correlate to the concepts of successful ageing. In fact, the cure in this case may be worse than the disease.

As a researcher currently ‘exploring the motivations of older outdoor adventurers in Ireland’ and my own experience of trekking, scuba diving and of ‘older’ sea swimmers, their passion and interest in leisure activity is a driving force for the maintainence health, fitness and social engagement.

Like any group in society, older people are not a homogenous group. The concept of cocooning, while intended to protect a specific group, flies in the face of decades of research which tells us that quality of life as one ages is based on remaining socially engaged, physically fit, mentally active, positive and contributing with in one’s community.

There is no question that ‘cocooning’, while undoubtedly well-intentioned has resulted in upset, concern and indignation amongst ‘older people’ and their advocates.

Cocooning – what is it, why do it and issues it raises

Cocooning may be considered as the creation of a ‘shell of safety’ based on perceived fears of the outside world. Currently, Cocooning is based on the premise that those 70 and over, or those with underlying medical conditions, are at greater risk of severe outcomes through contracting COVID-19.

The HSE has indicated that people over 70 “are strongly advised to stay at home and avoid any face-to-face contact”. There are other guidelines all designed to protect the “vulnerable.”

However, this suggestion and the language to communicate it has been perceived as a dictate and strikes fear into many older people, specifically those over 70. It raises issues of ageism and the negative perception of the ageing demographic. For others, the language itself is disempowering and older people and their advocates’ suggest that the fate of ‘older people’ is chosen based on innate ageist presumptions and that they themselves are left out of the discussion.

Six Discuss their Cocooning Adventure

While accepting of the good intentions and the need to manage the spread of the virus, all six were consistent in their views about the negative impact in the long term. Consequently, there were those that complied fully or partially, those that did not and those that did it their way, in their own words “rebels”.

Out of the six, two complied somewhat fully though reluctantly, one managed four hours, another two weeks and one did it “their way.” This group, albeit small, corroborates heterogeneity in ageing. The reality is that only one of the six actually conformed fully to the cocooning suggestions.

What was consistent among all was the confusion re Cocooning being a legislative requirement, the negative outcomes, the fear, and the worry that ageism is systemic. For four of the six ageism exists at a high level in Ireland.

Question one asked our six adventurers about their views on cocooning? Pat, suggested “ill-conceived, condescending and patronising.” Pat further suggested that it was not right to “equate age with disease.”

Caragh, without hesitation stated, “I thought the whole thing was incredibly ageist and condescending.” Caragh, an enthusiastic dog owner is very active in her community and engages in river and park clean ups winter and summer. She was incensed at the notion of being told that “she was too old and decrepit to even leave the confines of her own house.”

Geale however, took an opposing view and suggested that “the word was quite well chosen” and that we would “like the butterfly go forward in a new form of life.”

Interestingly, Graham, took a different perspective and suggested he had “no issue with the word initially but as he listened to how it was used he found it to be condescending to the over 70s.” He argued, cocooning is not what we are doing, as we will “not emerge stronger, in fact, we will likely emerge with serious physical and mental health issues.” On this basis Graham described himself as a “bit of a rebel” informing me that he cocooned “his own way.” Ultimately, he maintained social distance, washed his hands and walked when there were relatively few people in his favourite walking spot.

Jim (1 ) was “scared when it happened, I hated not getting out, missed my friends and staying in every day I got very bored and put on a lot of weight.”

Jim (2 ) was “not too pleased about it, it was more like a prison sentence” and decided after two weeks, with his doctor’s blessing, that he wasn’t going to continue with it.

All six expressed their concern at the negative outcomes for those that felt compelled to cocoon. They all provided examples of friends, or colleagues that now had mobility, weight, physical or mental health issues as a result of cocooning. The interpretation of the initial call to cocoon was thought to be a directive rather than a suggestion.

In general, most of the six felt that fear was used to get the message across. The lack of consideration of the voice of 70 year olds and over was a concern for some of the six. The issue of ageism was also a concern with one of the six suggesting that “this is ageism at its most blatant” and that the action will provoke “a negative reaction towards ageism.”

Another argued that while many discrimination battles have been fought, “the battle against ageism has not been fought.” One respondent was concerned that the battle against ageism would never be won as “ageism has always existed, but when you get into governmental, social ageism that the problem arises.”

On the long term impact, all six concurred that there will be a seriously negative impact. In particular, those who were fit and well, capable of being responsible and complying with the regulations suggested for other members of the population.


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