Against Ageism

It’s time to stop treat­ing se­nior cit­i­zens as a bur­den

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Sharon Bu­tala

It’s time to stop treat­ing se­nior cit­i­zens as a bur­den

ON the day that my hus­band died, I was two weeks short of my sixty-sev­enth birth­day, and I thought that once I got through the ter­ri­ble grief and the dis­tress of hav­ing to leave the rolling grass­lands of south­ern Saskatchewan, where I’d lived for thirty–three years, for Cal­gary, I would still have time ahead of me in which to en­joy a won­der­ful new life. Glim­mer­ing faintly on the hori­zon were art gal­leries; con­cert halls; the opera; pro­fes­sional the­atre; new, like-minded friends; and maybe, some day, even a re­la­tion­ship. But what I didn’t have a clue about was that I was about to be old nor about what be­ing old would mean to my dreams and de­sires. I sup­pose this is be­cause, while dread­ing old age with ev­ery fi­bre, I was, at the same time, in full de­nial that it would ever hap­pen to me, and so I was shocked down to the soles of my feet when it did.

The day old age strikes, our lives ap­pear com­fort­able, even priv­i­leged, but our hearts are numb with per­ma­nently thwarted de­sire, our throats choked with long­ing for things we will never have again, and our fu­ture, we are sure, is too bleak to con­tem­plate. We stare in ter­ror into the abyss and ask our­selves: Who am I now?

I strug­gled in the face of all this, as my body changed and grew more frag­ile no mat­ter what I did to stop it and as younger peo­ple started ig­nor­ing me or treat­ing me as if I were a not-very-smart, ob­sti­nate child. And be­cause of my less ro­bust phys­i­cal­ity, and my new sin­gle state, I was hav­ing to cut away things I used to do: bike rid­ing, cross­coun­try ski­ing, ex­ten­sive hik­ing, ad­ven­tur­ous trav­el­ling, and par­tic­i­pat­ing in many af­ter-dark out­ings. How on earth was I to find this “won­der­ful” new life?

What I was fac­ing is ubiq­ui­tous but fairly new in the span of hu­man his­tory. Even as re­cently as the early 1900s, when we all died at much younger ages, peo­ple over sixty were fairly rare and, in Western so­ci­ety, easy to ig­nore. But to­day, nearly 6 mil­lion Cana­di­ans are se­nior cit­i­zens. Never be­fore in North Amer­i­can his­tory have older adults formed such a large pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion. And since women tend to live longer than men, the older the age group, the higher the per­cent­age of fe­males. Women like me, now in our late seven­ties and alone for the first time in many years, find our­selves so­cial­iz­ing al­most ex­clu­sively with women and rarely meet a sin­gle male (whether we are in­ter­ested in find­ing one or not). We have to re­think what we value be­cause so much of our life has reached fruition; we’ve worked to ful­fill ca­reer goals, buy the dream house or coun­try cot­tage, meet new part­ners, start new fam­i­lies, get doc­tor­ates, and live se­curely as re­spected, use­ful el­ders within

our own multi-aged clans. Now we have to find mean­ing in places we might not have both­ered about when we were younger and half of a cou­ple: soli­tude, friend­ship, bird and an­i­mal watch­ing, and a closer fol­low­ing of mu­sic, paint­ing, and the­atre. This re­place­ment alone can be a soul-wrench­ing shift that forces us to ask our­selves: What mat­ters now?

We older peo­ple don’t want to spend the many good years ahead of us star­ing out the win­dow at a busy world rush­ing past that no longer has any place for us. Yet we have fallen vic­tim to the age of in­vis­i­bil­ity. Cur­rently, the aged are viewed as a large, co­her­ent group, even though we range in age by eas­ily thirty years, as well as by class, ed­u­ca­tion, and po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious ideas. Ev­ery­one around me ei­ther ig­nores old peo­ple or treats this de­mo­graphic as a prob­lem to be solved— think­ing in terms of pen­sions and in­come lev­els, health care and hous­ing needs, and, re­cently, lone­li­ness —rather than as a re­source from which the ben­e­fits of thought­ful, ex­pe­ri­ence-based ad­vice might flow.

The first and worst thing both for us old peo­ple and our so­ci­ety is the stag­ger­ing ageism ev­ery­where we turn. This so­ci­etal be­lief, whether frankly ar­tic­u­lated or merely an un­spo­ken as­sump­tion, is that old peo­ple are use­less, a drain on so­ci­ety, and an in­fe­rior form of hu­man­ity. Many se­niors have ex­pe­ri­enced the dis­re­spect, the rude­ness, the out­right dis­missal by peo­ple younger than us, un­til we be­gin to feel that stay­ing locked in our homes or else mov­ing to gated re­tire­ment com­mu­ni­ties are the only bear­able routes. Take restau­rants, for ex­am­ple: the wait staff, usu­ally very young, tend to turn first to the youngest per­son at the ta­ble and last to, well, me, when it should be the other way around. And I, small, vis­i­bly old, and fe­male, find get­ting served any­where there is a lineup re­quires a loud, au­thor­i­ta­tive voice and, some­times, my most pow­er­ful glare, de­signed to ter­rify.

For the most part, no­body thinks the old per­son in any group has any­thing per­ti­nent, use­ful, or in­ter­est­ing to say, and our style con­trib­utes to this no­tion. It isn’t just that we no longer look fab­u­lous or that our bod­ies won’t al­low us to dress like Bey­oncé or TV’S scar­ily smartly dressed Good Wife, but also, for the most part, we aren’t in­stantly ar­tic­u­late and fast-talk­ing; we in­stead choose to take time to think first, to speak slowly, to reach into our vast well of ex­pe­ri­ence to find an apt ex­am­ple or a teach­ing. Young peo­ple are an­noyed by slow­ness — they haven’t time to get a grip on an idea be­ing care­fully for­mu­lated; they laugh at the un­cool word choice and at what they think is our fail­ure to un­der­stand their new world. And they sus­pect us of be­ing able only to lec­ture or to pro­vide bland, ir­ri­tat­ing hom­i­lies.

So­ci­ety judges us in terms of the val­ues, abil­i­ties, and de­sires of the young. By such stan­dards, we, the old, can only fail. We are no longer part of the rul­ing cul­ture of youth, with its em­pha­sis on phys­i­cal beauty, agility, litheness, and men­tal quick­ness — the cul­ture that cel­e­brates, for in­stance, com­pet­i­tive ath­letes; pop mu­sic, with its fab­u­lous-look­ing, if plas­ti­cized, stars; the fash­ion in­dus­try; and the glib, speedy, ill-man­nered chat­ter­ers on TV and ra­dio. But I in­sist that we are not merely failed copies of the young; we are a whole new class of cit­i­zens, and it is time for all of us, the young and the old, to cre­ate a new frame­work with which to view older adults, to gen­uinely hon­our us, and to be­gin to cel­e­brate and use the vir­tu­ally unique gifts the el­derly have to of­fer.

First, we el­derly have to stop den­i­grat­ing our­selves — “I’m just an old fool,” “I’m only a lit­tle old lady,” and so on. Sec­ond, we have to start teach­ing the young to show au­to­matic re­spect to the el­derly, who of­ten know more than the young do and have seen more and un­der­stand more about the world. Many vot­ers to­day pre­fer young and en­er­getic can­di­dates over older, and per­haps wiser, in­di­vid­u­als. Try­ing to en­ter or re- en­ter the work­force over sixty is a night­mare in an age when tech­no­log­i­cal skills and per­sonal brand are per­haps too highly val­ued. De­spite their years of ser­vice, older em­ploy­ees and elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives are seen as slow­ing down progress, when both their pro­fes­sional and life ex­pe­ri­ence can of­fer a mea­sure of bal­ance in many con­texts.

Wouldn’t it be good to see the young and charis­matic work­ing hand in hand with the el­derly and ex­pe­ri­enced, each in­flu­enc­ing the other? What we el­derly have been through has taught us what we of­ten don’t even re­al­ize we know and what the young likely don’t know. It is my ex­pe­ri­ence that most of us are al­ready mak­ing changes to the way we ex­pe­ri­ence and think about our lives.

Out­side of our own com­mu­ni­ties, we can be­come “agents for change,” as the late Theodore Roszak, who chron­i­cled the rise and ag­ing of the baby boomer gen­er­a­tion, put it in his book Amer­ica the Wise. How many of us re­ally ex­pect to spend our last days, as in in­sur­ance ads, sit­ting in bathing suits gaz­ing at the sun­set on a far­away beach? In­stead, as agents for change, we could start by work­ing to rid both our­selves and so­ci­ety of the per­ni­cious ideas that make up ageism, as we are do­ing with those that con­sti­tute racism, sex­ism, and anti-semitism, when they ap­pear whether un­think­ingly or de­lib­er­ately in mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers and on ra­dio or tele­vi­sion. (For ex­am­ple, nasty com­ments I’ve heard more than once on the ra­dio about old women tuck­ing tis­sues up their sleeves or down their bo­soms and how dis­gust­ing that is. These re­marks stem out of a hor­ror of the aged rather than a re­al­iza­tion that most women’s ev­ery­day gar­ments don’t have pock­ets any­more and that, ap­par­ently, many el­derly women de­velop mild si­nus and nasal sen­si­tiv­i­ties.)

I have con­sid­ered launch­ing a re­lent­less but civil let­ter-writ­ing cam­paign to the per­pe­tra­tors, some quite un­think­ing and oth­ers de­lib­er­ate and cruel in their mock­ery, ev­ery time I hear a speaker on the ra­dio make an ageist re­mark, or see stereo­types about the old on tele­vi­sion, or read con­de­scend­ing re­marks about us in mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. This to raise so­ci­etal aware­ness of the un­truths of most such as­sump­tions and the im­mense harm be­ing done by them — a new kind of “con­scious­ness rais­ing” that my friends and I learned dur­ing the sec­ond wave of fem­i­nism in the six­ties and seven­ties, one that rec­og­nizes that, as we age, we find within our­selves a stronger kind­ness and a com­pas­sion in daily life that, for us, out­weigh le­gal, eco­nomic, and po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions that too of­ten are the most pow­er­ful im­per­a­tives in de­ci­sion mak­ing and that fur­ther po­lar­ize our so­ci­ety.

What is the role older adults can play in so­ci­ety? I think we are for­mu­lat­ing it even now, and it is the

old who are do­ing it, and we must be the ones who take the lead, be­cause only those who are cit­i­zens of the Do­min­ion of the Old truly un­der­stand it. It may well be that our days of quick wit, in­stant in­sights, and bril­liant feats of mem­ory are over, but our real in­tel­li­gence and, es­pe­cially, our true wis­dom, which is partly dis­pas­sion and partly com­pas­sion, have ex­panded vastly in a way the young can’t even imag­ine.

In the last ten years, I have gone from pro­found grief, baf­fle­ment, and near de­spair to a grow­ing sense that I’m get­ting closer to know­ing what life re­ally is. I be­gan life in a log house in the Saskatchewan bush, taught at the Uni­ver­sity of Saskatchewan, spent years as a mother and a city woman, then spent many more as a horse-rid­ing cat­tle rancher, trav­elled fairly widely, pub­lished nearly twenty books, had five plays pro­duced, and found my­self fetch­ing up, pos­si­bly fi­nally, in a condo in Cal­gary. I am stunned and heart­ened by this and, some­times, though rarely, even joy­ful. Laugh­ter — not the rage of the young — be­gins to seem the best re­sponse.

I am com­ing to un­der­stand what I per­son­ally need to live out these last years — who knows how many — with a mea­sure of peace and with se­ri­ous plea­sure in things I hardly no­ticed when I was young. I live more in the now than I have ever done and look back­wards at my long life as if it were a lovely dream, even with the pain, the hor­ror, and the end­less in­jus­tice. I heard my­self say the other day (to my own amaze­ment), “I have had a won­der­ful life.” What young or mid­dle-aged per­son can say that and then laugh out loud?

As with other old peo­ple, af­ter I’ve fin­ished the nec­es­sary ex­am­i­na­tion of my life (know­ing that liv­ing in the past is a trap), of death it­self, and of my lim­ited fu­ture, which will prob­a­bly not be glo­ri­ous, I have found my­self quite in­ad­ver­tently savour­ing the mo­ment and fo­cus­ing on it not as part of the spir­i­tual and ther­a­peu­tic prac­tice known as “mind­ful­ness” but as a nat­u­ral de­vel­op­ment in and of the state of be­ing old. It is through this at­ten­tion to the mo­ment that true joy in the won­ders of be­ing alive in the world, so rare oth­er­wise in adult­hood, fi­nally comes. As Roszak said, back in 1998, “If wis­dom means any­thing, it means the abil­ity to see through the il­lu­sions of youth.”

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