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Coronavirus information
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Susan Pinker is a psychologist whose most recent book, The Village Effect, explores the science of social interaction.

Who is most likely to flout physical distancing rules?

Is it young adults, who thronged parks and beaches during their spring break, and who are now discussing COVID-19 parties? Or is it their parents, who seemed to have a “What, me? Worry?” approach to tropical holidays and yoga class.

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How about the grandparents? A friend’s 88-year-old mother told her she had no intention of missing out on checker games with her great-grandson. When asked about quarantining, she responded, “At my age, what do I have to worry about?”

The answer to that question will be key to containing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 as schools and stores reopen. Even if the current chatter is about vaccines and fantasy treatments such as bleach, it is human behaviour that drives infectious disease. And human social behaviour changes as we age.

Sixteen- to 19-year-olds everywhere cohere in small, tightly-knit cliques, while twentysomethings branch out into larger networks bound by proximity and common interests. The middle-aged are tied down by responsibilities and shoehorn their socializing in whenever they can. Older seniors see their friendships steadily fall away, so they prize their remaining relationships as much as adolescents do.

Clearly, it’s painful for adults to sacrifice social contact at every age and stage, even more so for the young and single. That’s why I’m scratching my head at a survey released by Statistics Canada in early April, reporting that 90 per cent of Canadians of all ages are assiduously following physical distancing guidelines. For starters, the survey is crowdsourced: It’s based on volunteers filling out online questionnaires. Who does that? Concerned citizens who find themselves scrolling through Statscan’s website and opting to spend their free time completing a survey. Anyone who has ever watched Schitt’s Creek knows that such punctiliousness doesn’t represent all Canadians.

Age has a lot to do with viral spread, according to previous pandemics. The 1918 flu, which killed at least 50 million people, eviscerated an entire generation. Age mattered a great deal in determining who lost their life then, just as it does now. At that time, it was young adults who were most likely to die. According to Jacalyn Duffin, a history of medicine professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, young people had very little immunity from earlier waves of flu and were crowded together as “soldiers in barracks, students in dormitories,” transmitting the virus in close quarters. Then, as now, pneumonia was the grim reaper.

But now, older adults are the most vulnerable. They are now the ones living cheek by jowl in high rises, assisted-living facilities and long-term care compounds. Having already survived decades longer than their grandparents, this age group has accordingly accumulated more chronic ailments, which erode their defenses. And, of course, there are systemic reasons for seniors’ high mortality rates. Underpaid care staff who work consecutive shifts at multiple seniors’ homes to get by unwittingly spread the virus from place to place. But were the seniors themselves disbelieving at first?

There may have been some feckless seniors as the pandemic got under way. But I doubt that this group significantly boosted the infection rate. A series of recent studies has shown that as we grow older, we get better at controlling our urges. A study published last month in the journal Emotion sent smartphone notifications three times a day to adults between the ages of 20 and 80. The researchers wanted to know what tempted them at that very moment – be it food, drink, social contact, sex, shopping, the internet – and whether they could resist that temptation.

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“One of the most interesting findings is that older adults are better at resisting their desires, even when they’re not satisfied with their lives,” said Daisy Burr, the lead author of the study and a researcher at Duke University in North Carolina. “But it’s effortful,” said Gregory Samanez-Larkin, a psychology professor at Duke. “I think older adults know when it really matters. It’s like choosing your battles.”

And different life stages change one’s priorities. Another crowdsourced Statscan survey released last week tells us that adults of different ages have different types of pandemic worries. From age 15 to 24, and even up to age 44, Canadians are most concerned about social stressors, such as being confined at home and the “possibility of civil unrest.”

In contrast, 60 per cent of seniors are “very or extremely concerned about their health.” Seniors’ health fears, combined with their ability to master their own cravings, make it highly unlikely that they would violate physical distancing norms in large numbers.

As Oscar Wilde put it, “the tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.” Desires persist as we age, in other words. But the pleasure of indulging them? That’s for the young – even if it’s the old who pay the price.

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