“Well, I heard that those scientists and doctors are just guessing! They don’t know what they’re doing yet! Who knows what they’ll put in you with that injection.”
That’s my beloved grandmother, who is nearly 95 years old. She lives in a retirement home and had always followed the advice of her doctors. When her doctor told her to take two 30-minute walks every day, she laced up. She was diligent in her cataract aftercare routine, no matter the discomfort it caused. And she had always stayed up to date on flu shots and other recommended vaccinations.
But recently, she told me that she plans to turn down the COVID-19 vaccine.
Given the biomedical procedures and protocols in place, I would personally jump at the chance to get vaccinated and decrease the chances of infecting my grandmother — though I’m patiently waiting my turn. The Canadian government has prioritized elderly individuals in the vaccination queue due to seniors’ statistically high likelihood of hospitalization, or worse.
Queue or no queue, receiving the vaccine remains an individual’s choice. A recent StatCan survey showed that elderly individuals (aged 65+) are more willing to receive the vaccine than other demographics — this might be because many elderly people experienced firsthand the positive transformation that accompanied the polio vaccine in the late 1950s. But despite their overall willingness to vaccinate, nearly 30 per cent of elderly individuals expressed vaccine hesitancy. Put in practical terms: one in three of our elderly loved ones may refuse vaccination.
Elderly individuals’ vaccine hesitancy differs from the strong anti-vaxxing sentiment in Boomer cohorts, which is reinforced by viral videos and opinion pieces circulating through the online communities and/or preferred (social) media frequented by that generation. And, in adamant anti-vaxxing groups, there tends to be a broader psychological distrust in mainstream ideas and an attraction to conspiracy theories.
But this isn’t what’s going on with my grandmother. Grandma doesn’t own a computer or cellphone, let alone possess the eyesight, joint mobility or technical savvy to navigate the deep dark hole of viral videos. While she diligently watches the news channel nearly 24/7, she has often commented to me that viewers are asked to visit websites for more information on topics like the vaccine, something she cannot do. The only way for her to receive “more information” is through her conversations with others.
Elderly individuals receive most of their information from their primary caregivers.
The likeliest explanation for her sudden distrust in vaccines is that the only person she has significant contact with these days is my mother, her primary caregiver. Both of my parents are adamant anti-vaxxers. They too have chosen to not receive any vaccine offered to them in the coming weeks or months. After much personal frustration and several charged conversations, I’ve accepted the fact that it is not my place to attempt to change my parents’ worldview — or, at least, that I don’t have the superhuman energy required to convert them. Eventually, we agreed to simply avoid the topic altogether.
But I remain deeply concerned for my grandma and all other vulnerable individuals who have developed a distrust in the medical system. With less access to digital platforms and with (often) a decreased mental aptitude to process complex information or seek out alternate viewpoints, elderly individuals receive most of their information from their primary caregivers.
Even though myself and others in Grandma’s life have tried to maintain regular contact during the pandemic, we have far fewer interactions with her than my mom does. One research study has shown that being exposed to information repeatedly has a direct correlation with older adults’ willingness to recall and affirm it as true. Imagine how much more impact repeated information has when someone has no access to outside opinions to counter narratives that the vaccine is underdeveloped, inadequately tested and ultimately unsafe. It breaks my heart because her choice to remain unvaccinated will undoubtedly put her (and possibly others) at great risk.
What might we do to offer more-complete information so that they can make a wise and informed decision about the vaccine?
We must each credibly inform ourselves first and then share what we’ve learned with others — especially with those who may not have the means or motivation to access it on their own.
Combating anti-vaxx sentiments was hard enough before the pandemic. Believe me, I’ve tried it all. Presenting evidence — for example, the fact that clinical trials demonstrate Pfizer’s vaccine is 90-per-cent effective, and Moderna’s rates at 95 per cent — rarely gets through to individuals whose anti-vaxx beliefs are tied up in a greater worldview, like my parents.
We can’t count on medical staff alone. When Grandma’s long-term care home communicated to its residents about the vaccine rollout plan, they did not include any information about the vaccine’s safety. I assume this is because the staff are so overworked and overwhelmed right now that they cannot be expected to add “educate residents about vaccines” to their list. But, unfortunately, we cannot assume that elderly individuals will be proactively accessing this information in other ways: we, their family members, need to provide it.
We have to balance out these anti-vaxxing opinions. Specifically, we should ensure that elderly individuals and other vulnerable populations are receiving more balanced information concerning the COVID-19 vaccine. We must each credibly inform ourselves first and then share what we’ve learned with others — especially with those who may not have the means or motivation to access it on their own. For my part, I’ve written to the manager at my grandmother’s retirement home and offered to create a short informational pamphlet using government resources which will answer questions about the vaccine’s safety that elderly individuals may have.
As a university lecturer, I often think about education as something which occurs formally in a classroom between a designated teacher and students. But education can truly be as simple as the conversations we have with those in our (virtual) social circles. Call your grandparents, parents, great aunts and uncles, and friends: see if they have questions about the vaccine and see if/how you can help answer them. Let’s be in this together.
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