“Bubbling” the Fourth Age in the Time of COVID-19

Ambivalence and Agency




How to Cite

Brooks, J., & Hopgood, F. (2021). “Bubbling” the Fourth Age in the Time of COVID-19: Ambivalence and Agency. M/C Journal, 24(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2746 (Original work published March 13, 2021)
Vol. 24 No. 1 (2021): bubbles
Published 2021-03-13 — Updated on 2021-03-24

Prelude: 2020 in Words

Each year the Australian National Dictionary Centre, based at the Australian National University (ANU), selects “a word or expression that has gained prominence in the Australian social landscape”. In 2020, “iso” took out first place, with “bubble” following close behind. On the Centre’s website, Senior Researcher Mark Gywnn explains that “iso” was selected not only for its flexibility, merrily combining with other words to create new compound words (for instance “being in iso”, doing “iso baking” and putting on “iso weight”), but also because it “stood out as a characteristically Aussie abbreviation” (Australian National Dictionary Centre).

Alongside the flexibility of the word “iso” and its affinity with the Australian English tradition of producing and embracing diminutives, iso’s appeal might well be that it does not carry the associations that the word “bubble” has acquired in the time of COVID. While COVID-19 has put many of us in various forms of “iso”, the media imagery—and indeed experiences—of many older people living in residential aged care during COVID has shifted some of the associations of the word “bubble”, heightening its associations with fragility and adding vulnerability and helplessness into the mix.

2020 was not the first time “bubble” has appeared in the Australian word of the year list. In 2018 “Canberra bubble” took out the first spot. What interests us about bubble’s runner-up position behind “iso” in 2020’s word of the year is what this might also reveal about the way ideas of independence vs dependence, and youthfulness vs aged underlie and inflect new usages of these words. In the era of COVID-19, the buoyancy of “iso” is tied to its association with a particular kind of Aussie-youth-speak, while the sense of heaviness and negative resonances that now accompany the word bubble are tied to its associations with the experiences of those in aged care.

In 2020 “bubble”—a word that has primarily been associated with children and the child-like (bubble baths, bubble tea)—took on new associations and overtones. As the pandemic unfolded, “bubble” also became intertwined with media depictions of and popular discourses around those in later life, many of whom experienced “iso” much more brutally than the easy-Aussie-speak of “iso” would convey. There is much less play—and a lot less mingling—in the Australian National Dictionary Centre description of new uses of the word “bubble”: “a district, region, or a group of people viewed as a closed system, isolating from other districts, regions, or groups as a public health measure to limit the spread of Covid-19”.

There have been various kinds of “closed system[s]”, isolated groups and regions constructed in the management of the pandemic, but there is one group—and one kind of location—that has been “bubbled” in quite specific ways. While the sectioning off and isolating of older age people in the name of protecting their health has often been ineffectively—and in some places, disastrously—managed in terms of disease prevention, it has been very effective in reducing the rights and voices of those it acts in the name of. Speaking from Ireland but commenting on the situation in the UK and parts of Europe, Anne Fuchs and colleagues write that “the discursive homogenization and ‘frailing’ of the over 65s meant that people in this category were an object of public discourse rather than participants in the debate” (2). In many instances the “bubbling” of older people, particularly those in aged care residences, has served to both isolate and render largely voiceless the residents of these care homes.

Although the global impact of COVID-19 on the aged has been significant, including across many affluent societies, it has been particularly disastrous in Australia. At the time of writing (1 January 2021), of the 909 COVID-related deaths in Australia to date, 693 have been of people aged 80 or over: in other words, more than 75% of COVID-related deaths in Australia have been of people over 80. According to the federal government’s records of COVID-19 deaths by age group and sex, 685 of these deaths have been of aged care residents. It is not surprising therefore that many speak of the heavy impact of COVID-19 on older people as a form of genocide.

Public discourse and government policies and priorities around COVID-19 have thrown into relief and exacerbated some of the deeply troubling ways that older people, particularly those living in aged care residences, are not recognised or treated as “equal partners in our future” (Royal Commission into Aged Care 1). Both the management of and public discourse around COVID-19 have highlighted and escalated the forms of ageism, especially ageism around later life, that have become embedded in Australian culture. In late 2019 the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety released its Interim Report, titled simply Neglect. In the Foreword, the commissioners write:

the Australian community generally accepts that older people have earned the chance to enjoy their later years, after many decades of contribution and hard work. Yet the language of public discourse is not respectful towards older people. Rather, it is about burden, encumbrance, obligation and whether taxpayers can afford to pay for the dependence of older people. (Royal Commission into Aged Care 1)

Written and released before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Interim Report highlighted the “fundamental fact that our aged care system essentially depersonalises older people” (Royal Commission into Aged Care 6) and identified many ways “the aged care system fails to meet the needs of our older, often very vulnerable, citizens” (Royal Commission into Aged Care 1). In 2020 we saw some of the effects of these failures in the often disastrous mismanagement of disease transmission prevention in many aged care residences in Australia. Equally troubling, the resulting deaths have at times been accompanied by a general acceptance of the loss of so many in later life to COVID-19. The fact that these deaths are often regarded as somehow more inevitable, or as less significant than the deaths of others, is an indication of how deeply “Australia has drifted into an ageist mindset that undervalues older people and limits their possibilities” (Royal Commission into Aged Care 1). It assumes that one’s later-life years are of less significance and value (to oneself, to the community) than one’s younger years.

At various times in the pandemic, sizable parts of the global population have been variously asked, advised, or required by their governments to remain within their household or residential “bubble”. These COVID-related “bubbles” are more buoyant for some. Jackie Gulland has written a feminist analysis of the ways that the UK COVID-19 lockdown rules are premised on “neo-liberal assumptions about the family as autonomous and sufficient for the provision of reproductive labour” (330). In many places the requirement to stay within one’s “household bubble” both assumes that the home is safe for all, and that most care and dependency requirements are provided and received within a household. As Gulland’s essay demonstrates, the idea of the household bubble constructs an image or idea of who and what constitutes a household, and which relationships “count”. Drawing on critiques of neo-liberal and able-ist ideas about autonomy by feminist and disability scholars, Gulland “shows how the failure of policymakers to take account of interdependency has made lockdown more difficult for carers and those in receipt of care” (330).

In this essay we look at some of the ways that the required and/or imagined COVID-19 bubbles for people in later life are thought of differently to the COVID-19 bubbles that younger, and mixed age, households are imagined as forming. This is particularly the case, we argue, for those in aged care residences. Younger and mixed age COVID bubbles often include extended or linked households (as we will discuss below in relation to the idea of the compassionate bubble) and function as a bubble that can link and enclose. In contrast, COVID bubbles in and for aged care and those in later life, work to isolate and separate. They function as bubbles that close off and shut out, as if placing the older person and older people behind glass (in some cases, quite literally). Likewise, while the COVID-19 bubbles for the “general” population (a category from which those in later life are often excluded) are regarded as temporary structures that will in time be dissolved to re-allow social movement and intermingling, the later life and aged care COVID-19 bubble is imagined very differently. This is because it is overlaid upon a pre-existing conception of later life—and in particular the fourth age—as itself a kind of bubbled existence, a fragile state held somewhat separate and apart from the general population and moving inexorably toward death—a bubble that pops.

Bubbling the Fourth Age

The idea that later life can be divided into different stages and ages has a long history, although the shape, meaning and valuing of different ages in later life is historically specific. Back in the late 1980s the Cambridge historian Peter Laslett proposed that rather than falling into three main stages—childhood, adulthood and old age—there are in fact four stages and that “later life can be divided into a ‘third age’ and a ‘fourth age’” (Gilleard and Higgs, “The Fourth Age” 368). Laslett’s distinction between a third age (active and characterised by personal fulfillment) and a fourth age (for Laslett an age of infirmity) has become increasingly significant in both age studies and in the provision and imagining of aged care. While the third age is increasingly depicted as something that, when managed “successfully”, can expand and fill with rich experiences and rewards (assuming one has the economic and social privilege and mobility to embrace these rich offerings—see Katz and McHugh cited in Zeilig, “Critical Use of Narrative”), the fourth age, on the other hand, is associated with frailty, increased dependence, vulnerability, precarity (see Lloyd; Gilleard and Higgs; and Morganroth Gullette on the fourth age).

Of course, experiences of vulnerability, dependency and precarity run throughout the life course and cannot be reduced to chronological age. However, the distinction between a third and fourth age tends to assume that once one “leaves” the third age, it is a one-way path to “the three ‘Ds’: decrepitude, dependence, and death” (Laslett). The fourth age becomes associated with those aspects of ageing that are culturally rejected and pushed aside—in particular physical dependence which, as in much able-ist thinking, is rendered abject. As Morganroth Gullette has argued, a “savage contradiction” underlies and fuels this distinction, as “fantasies of the longevity bonanza proliferate alongside growing terrors of living too long” and becoming a “‘burden’” (21). In other words, those aspects of ageing—indeed those aspects of being human—that are seen as undesirable and/or abject are associated with the fourth age and imagined as somehow exclusive to it: they are placed elsewhere, contained in a fourth age “bubble”.

The understanding of the fourth age as a kind of bubble is evident in and enabled by various kinds of cultural representations and institutional discourses around later life, including the kind of language used (particularly language connoting precarity and fragility and liminality) and recurrent media imagery in which people in their “fourth age” are depicted as mentally and physically out of reach (for instance isolated behind glass). Legislation around the movements of residents, visitors, and staff in aged care residence does not simply create “protective” bubbles around aged care residences but also constructs and imagines these residences and their inhabitants as “bubbled”, removed, and voiceless.

Vulnerability, ephemerality, precarity and decline have become increasingly significant in representations of and discourses around ageing. Much of the media coverage of those in later life, particularly those living in aged care residences, has further fuelled what Sally Chivers has called the “nursing home specter” and delivered, in heightened and often spectacularised form, the “life-course narrative that dominant culture provides—an unliveable mind and unrecognizable body, mountainous expense” (Morganroth Gullette, 24).

The discourse on ageing is characterised by the use of metaphor and metonymy, of which “the bubble” or “bubbling” is only one notable example. The culture of fear that surrounds the fourth age stems from the presumption that ageing inevitably leads to decay and decline in quality of life, and that the experience of ageing is characterised by various forms of physical and cognitive deterioration, such as dementia. Cultural gerontologist Hannah Zeilig has drawn attention to the pervasive use of metaphors—in both medical journals and mass media reports—to describe the experience of living with dementia. These metaphors attempt to capture and simplify the complexities of being, speaking, and knowing experienced by people with dementia. They are frequently used to communicate these experiences to people who do not live with dementia.

The cultural metaphors of dementia are potent examples of ageism. They are not neutral in their connotations or implicit value judgements. These metaphors reveal wider social anxieties around ageing, despite the fact that people in their 40s and 50s can have dementia (Dementia Australia). As Zeilig has pointed out, many of these metaphors have presented a negative framing of dementia, describing the rising numbers of dementia diagnoses in apocalyptic, biblical terms such as “plague”, “crisis”, and “epidemic” (“Cultural Metaphor” 260). While this hyperbole may be grounded in statistics and the realities of an ageing population, it has nevertheless been alarming. This rhetoric has often been a necessary tactic for dementia organisations as part of their efforts to secure media coverage, raise public awareness of dementia, and lobby for increased government and private investment in funding research and support services.

Despite these noble intentions, this rhetoric can risk excluding or marginalising the voices of people living with dementia. Some of the metaphors that have been used to describe dementia are particularly dehumanising and stigmatising, such as the perception of Alzheimer’s disease as a form of “living death”. This conception of Alzheimer’s, which Susan M. Behuniak has observed in both scholarly and popular discourse, elicits strong negative emotional responses of revulsion and fear. It constructs people with Alzheimer’s as abject zombie-like figures living a half-life or twilight existence.

These trends in dementia discourse that Zeilig and Behuniak identified in the first half of the 2010s are also apparent in media imagery and discourse about older people in the COVID-19 pandemic. Much like the cultural narratives of dementia, these representations often reinforce the fourth age’s association with forms of vulnerability, decline and decay that are rendered abject. In contrast to this negative framing of both dementia and the fourth age, the trope of “living in a bubble” can also present a more ambivalent conception of both living with dementia and, by extension, the sociocultural experience of living in the fourth age during the time of COVID-19.

“Bubbling” can serve a protective function for the person living with dementia by reducing sensory overload and cognitive confusion that may lead to anxiety and emotional distress. In dementia care, bubble wands and bubble wrap are two of the most commonly used tools in sensory therapy for reducing anxiety and agitation, and providing comfort (DailyCaring). These examples remind us of the materiality of the bubble, which functions as both cultural trope and material condition that affects people’s lives (to borrow from Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum, cited in Vivian Sobchack’s essay on metaphor and materiality). Within the diversity and range of caring practices encompassed by the trope of “bubbling”, there is clear potential for the bubble to be enabling, rather than disabling, if it is used to enhance quality of life and wellbeing for older people, rather than to separate, marginalise and isolate.

Despite the multivalent possibilities of the bubble for enhancing quality of life for people with dementia, the bubble’s association with precarity has been heightened by its deployment to protect older people during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a source of ambivalence around the COVID-19 bubble, a public health response that is acknowledged as having both protective and harmful effects. It involves “bubbling” older people, especially those living in residential care, by physically isolating them and limiting their contact with family and friends to conversations mediated by digital technology or a windowpane. By restricting physical and direct contact with the outside world in order to reduce and contain transmission of the virus, the COVID-19 bubble is intended to protect the physical health of older adults. But as Karra Harrington and Martin J. Sliwinski caution, this can also risk the cognitive health and mental wellbeing of older people by creating social isolation. These concerns about the negative health impacts of the COVID-19 bubble compound the existing popular understanding of late life as isolated and isolating, perpetuating the ageist assumptions that characterise the social imaginary around the fourth age.

Creating Compassionate Bubbles

The distress of separation caused by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions is felt by all generations, not just older people. Recognising the costs to our emotional and mental wellbeing of living in isolation to protect our bodies and our communities from viral invasion, Australian epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws has called for “a compassionate germ bubble”, modelled on New Zealand’s concept of an extended bubble that allows close contacts beyond one household. This alternative approach to “bubbling” is designed to strike a better balance between physical and mental health. Writing during Melbourne’s strict and prolonged lockdown following a second wave of cases in the winter of 2020, McLaws argued that “a compassionate germ bubble may foster resilience by reducing a sense of isolation for people living alone and friends, extended family and partners distressed by the separation”.

There have been a number of creative and compassionate responses to the necessity of the COVID-19 bubble for protecting those most vulnerable to the virus. Aged care residences have developed innovative ways to safely maintain in-person visits and provide opportunities for face-to-face contact between residents and their families and friends. One example reported in the Australian media (Steger) is “The Window of Love” in Perth, which demonstrates the positive potential of the bubble—represented here as a pane of glass bordered by a painted frame—for facilitating social connection and supporting wellbeing despite restrictions on physical contact.

The media reporting of these innovations tends to spectacularise the residents of these homes, reinforcing their fragility and vulnerability as they are framed behind plastic or glass. In December 2020, international media outlets The Guardian, RTE News, and Star Media posted a Reuters video story on their respective YouTube channels about a “hug bubble” created in an aged care home in Jeumont, France. This inflatable plastic tunnel allows physical touch between those living in the home and those outside it through hermetically sealed sleeves. Separating the resident from their visitors is a clear plastic sheet, which is disinfected by staff in between each visit. Recognising the importance of physical contact for wellbeing, nursing staff reported that the hug bubble has brought comfort to the residents, whose previous contact with family and friends since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020 had been limited to video calls or talking through a window.

Viewer comments reveal divergent responses to this media story across all three YouTube channels. Some viewers applaud the innovation while others disparage the hug bubble as “cruel” and “disgraceful”. Other comments register viewers’ ambivalence, recognising the good intentions behind the idea while despairing at the need for it. Several comments offer a snapshot of the cynical, often incoherent views about the pandemic commonly found on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, while also demonstrating the persistence of ageist attitudes that regard the elderly as a burden. These negative responses are striking in contrast with the positive framing of the original media report, which is presented as a “feel good” human interest story through brief interviews with family members and nursing home staff, reflecting on the residents’ experiences using the hug bubble. This positive framing is reinforced by the gentle music track accompanying the video posted on the RTE News channel.

Beyond the institutional context of aged care residences, many families and communities have also engineered solutions to reduce the stress of separation. Craving physical contact after months of isolation, they have embraced the materiality and tactility inherent in the bubble trope. People have improvised using household objects, such as plastic sleeves attached to transparent shower curtains, to build “cuddle curtains”, and “hug machines” to enable safe—and playful—physical contact. These innovations and adaptations tap into the bubble’s playful qualities, while also “going viral” as families document their creativity, delight and joy through their own video stories shared on YouTube.

As we move into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with case numbers and the death toll continuing to climb globally, the concept of the COVID-19 bubble and its role in protecting the community will continue to be debated, refined and reconfigured in both public health responses and media discourse. Despite Australia’s relatively good fortune in terms of total number of COVID-related deaths compared to other Western nations such as the US and the UK, the disproportionately high number of deaths among Australians in aged care is a sobering reminder of the systemic failures in Australia’s aged care residences. As we move in and out of periods of social isolation, restrictions and lockdowns, it will become increasingly important to address the mental health impacts of “living in a bubble” and to consider creative, compassionate alternatives that challenge ageism and maintain quality of life for fourth age Australians.


As COVID-19 and its management continue to reshape our world(s) and our relations to each other, its impacts continue to be unevenly felt, particularly for those in later life. For this reason, it becomes increasingly important to be alert to the ways in which “bubbling” the fourth age in response to COVID-19 risks reinforcing a homogenising view of older people as vulnerable and isolated, defenceless against viral invasion and voiceless in expressing agency and maintaining social connection.

This essay responds to Hannah Zeilig’s earlier call to “radically rethink the ways in which age and ageing have been culturally configured” (“Critical Use of Narrative” 16). One of the purposes of this essay has been to critically assess some of the ways that the relatively new discourse of a fourth age—as somehow both qualitatively and quantifiably different to and separate from the third age—entails a homogenising view of older people. This view has enabled forms of ageism that have often been particularly brutal in their impact during the pandemic.

In this essay we have argued that popular conceptions of and public health discourse and policy around the fourth age have often enabled—or, at the very least, supported—forms of ageism. This ageism has been further heightened through both the discourse and the imagery of the COVID-19 bubble. The fourth age, we argued, has often been understood as bubble-like: as a “stage” of life when one is somehow separated from the larger community and culture. The fourth age is configured as physically fragile and precarious, transient and temporary, ephemeral, and enclosed in—and as—its own world. Created in the name of protecting “our most vulnerable”, the bubble in the time of COVID-19 has heightened these pre-existing social anxieties around the fourth age. The challenge, as we move into the second year of the pandemic in Australia, is to find new ways of protecting the health and wellbeing of people in later life, while creating opportunities for connection, agency and play that are supported, rather than hindered, by the COVID-19 bubble.


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Author Biographies

Dr Jodi Brooks, University of New South Wales

Senior Lecturer, Film Studies

School of the Arts & Media, University of New South Wales

Dr Fincina Hopgood, University of New England

Lecturer in Screen Studies, Department of Creative Arts and Communication

School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, University of New England