The language of ageing

The language of ageing

I just watched a great session intro by Sophie Handler for the Artistic Exploration of Ageing Session 7, a series of workshops from the UK. Sophie explores how language can mediate our experience of ageing and is busy compiling a Vocabulary of Ageing with all the words we use to talk about age.

Artistic exploration of ageing – session 7 from Dave Martin on Vimeo.

I’ve often thought about how so many of the words we use around ageing are negative (‘over the hill’, ‘the elderly’, ‘old biddy’) or how often judgemental terms creep in too. I’m thinking about terms like ‘positive ageing’, ‘ageing better’, ‘successful ageing’. And of course, while I support being positive about ageing, who gets to define what is ‘better’ or ‘successful’?

Anti-ageing is another term that really gets my goat and is almost exclusively seen in the beauty industry. I’ve made a vow to not buy any ‘anti-ageing’ products or from brands that use this term in their marketing. Fortunately, many newer brands don’t seem to include ‘anti-ageing’ in their list of claims, as opposed to more established brands which still take this angle in their marketing.

I’ve also extended this approach to other consumables… I was looking for new underwear for myself as well as trying to find a front opening bra that my mum could manage (she has arthritis in her hands). I was browsing a range of online sites and noticed that some brands have started to include older models. I was surprised how much it made a differen to how I felt about the product, seeing older women represented on the sites. It made me think about the decision-making the company would have gone through to decide to use older models and that they were trying to be inclusive of a range of women.

Two images of women’s torsos in singlets and boyleg undies and one image featuring 3 older women and a black dog on
Image of younger model and older model in bra and pants on

Again, it’s a reminder of how language can impact our perspective on the world – nowhere on these sites was age mentioned in terms of the product. No nanna knickers to be seen. It felt like acknowledgement that older women can choose comfort without being seen as daggy or they can choose more sexy attire without being seen as ridiculous. More of this please!!

Just so over it!

Just so over it!

Maybe it’s COVID-19 and the associated disruptions. Maybe it’s being 53 and going through perimenopause. Or maybe I am completely sick and tired of seeing so much ageism (and racism and ableism and sexism) in a world where we should really know better by now. I despair that I will see out my life and things won’t have changed much at all, despite all the hard work of the many activists and advocates working to make change.

In August, The Ageing Revolution core team (Simon and I!) went on a roadtrip. It was part-work, part-play and part-checking in on family. We camped along the way and I took the opportunity to re-read Ashton Applewhite’s Manifesto on Ageing “This Chair Rocks” as well as Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal book “Old Age“. They make for both inspiring and depressing reading simultaneously.

Simone de Beauvoir’s book was published in 1970, a full 50 years ago. It could have been published this year for all the change we’ve seen occur. At the same time, the treatment of older people during COVID-19 has brought inequity into sharp relief, stripping many older people around the world of basic human rights. Around the world, we’ve seen high death rates among older people, aged care centres abandoned, and older people isolated from their family and support systems. To top it off, the recent news that studies on COVID-19 tend not to include older people have really confirmed the ageism at work here. Older people are disposable, dispensable and if you happen to be in aged care, pretty much given up for dead already!

The aged care royal commission has found the Australian government’s measures to prepare the aged care sector for Covid-19 were “insufficient” in some respects. The royal commission’s special report on aged care and Covid-19 has 4 clear recommendations:

  • The Australian government should fund providers to ensure there are adequate staff available to deal with external visitors so that the Industry Code for Visiting Residential Aged Care Homes during COVID-19 (Visitation Code) can be modified to enable a greater number of more meaningful visits between people receiving care and their loved ones.
  • The Australian government should create Medicare Benefits Schedule items to increase the provision of allied health and mental health services to people living in residential aged care during the pandemic to prevent deterioration in their physical and mental health. Any barriers, whether real or perceived, to allied health and mental health professionals being able to enter residential aged care facilities should be removed unless justified on genuine public health grounds.
  • The Australian government should publish a national aged care plan for COVID-19 and establish a national aged care advisory body.
  • The Australian government should arrange for the deployment of accredited infection prevention and control experts into residential aged care homes.

Given these findings, why aren’t government, services, NGOs clamouring to understand how they can tackle ageism? Australia has a national campaign against ageism, EveryAge Counts, led by the Benevolent Society and one of the first of its kind in the world. It is even supported by the aforementioned Ashton Applewhite. But where is the charge to make change? Why isn’t this a priority?

The answer is because ageism is so internalised and so endemic, it’s not even noticed. It is accepted. As older people, our lives, our value, appear to be reduced with every year. And our society, that values productivity and contribution, fails to understand what value older people bring beyond propping up a health industry based on illness. Simone de Beauvoir notes this way back in 1970 – societies that operate in a deficit mindset scavenging for resources regard older people as a burden. In this same way, capitalism has positioned older people as the enemy of the young, an economic drain on society remedied only by death, whereupon their property value can be transferred to younger people.

And now as I ponder my own path forward to older age, at the same time as negotiating the increasing interdependence of my mother as she nears 82, I’m just feeling a bit jaded that this isn’t all sorted already. Where is the choice for older people to shift housing, to access support and safety, to feel connected to a whole? ‘It is happening’, I hear you say yet I feel like the change is currently limited to those with the affluence to afford a lifestyle free from ageism. And even then, there’s an underlying current of dread that affluence does not always buy an age-friendly experience.

So I’m trying to take solace in my younger and older friendships (support and friend networks are important as you age, right?), my love/hate relationship with Twitter and the grey twitterati who inspire and uplift (Tom Scharf, Jeanette Leardi, Ashton Applewhite, Louise Aronson, Susan Flory, Grandma Williams, Jane Evans, and also, Mona Eltahawy) and try to remember to skateboard at least once a week. It’s good for my balance and my mental health. And fuck it, when you’re skating, no one cares whether you’re six or sixty.

Talking about women and ageing on WOW Bites!

Talking about women and ageing on WOW Bites!

Super excited to share the very first episode of WOW Bites featuring yours truly among some wonderful and inspiring company!

For those who don’t know about WOW Australia, you’r in for a treat. WOW, which stands for Women of the World, is an international event/project/creation/global force that brings together women from all walks of life to talk about everything and anything to do with women. It’s creative, imaginative and challenging. And so far 2 million women worldwide have taken part in gatherings in 30 countries on 5 continents.

WOW Australia was due to go ahead in early April when coronavirus put a stop to gatherings…so in true WOW style, they’ve come up with an alternative for sharing all the great content we would have got to experience at the event.

Click here to watch the first episode of WOW BItes – WOW Bites Episode 1 – featuring the following:

Lisa Mumbin discusses her work as Chair of the Jawoyn Association in the Northern Territory, the creation of the Banatjarl Strong Wumin Grup and appreciating Country during this time of crisis.
Leonie Sanderson (that’s me!) talks about fearless ageing for all and her dream to create an Age Justice movement that has older women at its heart
Stephanie Dower, shares how authentic representations of people with a disability in screen media have allowed her to fully embrace her identity and the disability community
Rebecca Vandyk In a celebration of birthing, motherhood and the miracle of human life, she worked with a team of 20 dedicated women in regional Victoria to knit a giant placenta. This would have been part of the exhibition program at WOW Australia’s about half-hour all up, so grab yourself a cuppa and settle in for some short bites of inspo!

Embrace the silver, embrace ageing, embrace you

Embrace the silver, embrace ageing, embrace you

It’s been funny, no maybe, curious is the right word, to see how many folks are thinking about their silver roots while we’re in lockdown. It’s made me reflect on my own journey to silver which started about 6 or 7 years ago physically but probably a whole lot longer before that…

My mum has the best shade of silver white hair. She has been grey for as long as I can remember. She never dyed her hair nor was she particularly embarrassed by her grey hair either. She’d started her journey to grey from about the age of 28 (when I was born, coincidence?) and it didn’t seem to bother her too much. My father, by contrast, didn’t even begin to go grey til he was in his fifties, and even then, it was quite steely and not completely grey til much later. I always expected that I would be like my mother and go grey early. My dark brown hair was never quite dark enough for the vampy, gothic-style look I tried to achieve as a young woman and I experimented with many types of black hair dye to keep any semblance of brown far away. I started noticing regular grey hairs in my late thirties. While I was pregnant, I stopped dying my hair and saw a few greys poke through at the front. I’d have been quite happy with a Lily Munster-style white streak but what I saw didn’t quite match that and so post-baby, where the greys seemed even more prolific, it was back to dying.

On my 48th birthday, you can see the salt and pepper streaks.
When I was 20, with my mother and my grandmother. My mum would have been 48.

This became a massive chore. Not one to get my hair salon-dyed, the regularity of having to dye my roots every three to four weeks started to grate. More of an impact though was the break-up of my marriage. I was 44 years old and hadn’t dated anyone for about ten years. It felt grim. In one particularly heated argument with my ex-, he basically told me I would probably join the ranks of all the other bitter, older women who were washed up and couldn’t get a partner, because hey, who wants to be with a wrinkly old crone when you can be with a svelte young thing. I was furious but also scared. What if he was right? What if I was going to be alone for the rest of my life? How do I compete with people younger than me?

It was at that moment that I thought ‘fuck it’. What the hell am I doing? I will not try to be something I am not. I am a mid-forties woman and that’s what I will be.

Fully silver!

I didn’t let myself go (such a soap opera phrase!). Not at all. Actually since hitting my forties, I’m probably fitter than I ever was when I was in my twenties and thirties. And I didn’t throw out my skincare products, stop using makeup (though it’s mostly just lipstick now) or settle in for nights at home with the cat, ok, maybe for a while there. But it was whoosh, out with the hair dye.

I stepped into my own power and claimed it. Sounds corny but that’s what it was. I decided I would meet the world on my terms and if that was grey and wrinkled, that’s what it would be. And honestly, I haven’t really looked back. The transition has been gradual. I wasn’t as grey as I thought I was, which was a surprise. Some friends told me my hair made me look older. My own mum asked me if it was something I really wanted to do?! And I’ve had a few moments of wishing I could try other colours but stop myself when I remember how long it took to grow out the grey. And I do like using the word silver. The other bonus has been how many other women have also ditched the dye and gone silver. Everywhere I look, I am no longer alone. And I like to think I may have contributed to a few people’s decisions to go for silver too.

Ageism, Inequity and Health in 2020

Ageism, Inequity and Health in 2020

As a young woman, I never dreamed that ageism would be something that would affect me in my lifetime. I never imagined it affecting my sister, or my parents or even my grandparents. It could be that I lacked imagination. Or maybe I was idealistic (my mother often said I was). Or that I had a view of the world that was coloured by never having experienced significant discrimination, or at least, never having felt unable to counter discrimination with the obvious logic of my words and my unfailing passion.

I just couldn’t envisage a society where my age might determine my ability to access health care or my financial security or my housing options.

These days though, I’m a bit more cynical and a bit more jaded.

As a woman in my fifties, I acknowledge my age impacts on my life. Especially since I’m smack bang in the middle of a hormonal transition (thanks perimenopause) the likes of which I haven’t experienced since puberty, there’s no forgetting that this particular stage of life is part of growing older. And so are the accompanying effects – my skin is different, I’m getting a wrinkly neck, my tummy is a bit bigger, I can’t drink alcohol without suffering from night sweats, multitasking seems to be a thing of the past and I often find myself with words on the tip of my tongue, not quite able to get them out. These are the undeniable, but hopefully temporary, physical and cognitive changes that come with ageing as a woman.

I remember feeling miffed at being called an elderly primigravida when I was pregnant since surely there’s a more appropriate term (turns out ‘advanced maternal age’ is that term), I was only 37 then and felt as if my age wasn’t necessarily a good marker of my ability to give birth. Of course, medical evidence shows older mothers are at more risk of a range of complications, but I still hated the term ‘elderly’. To add insult to injury, my midwife told me, after a short labour, that I gave birth like a sixteen-year-old. I had no idea what she meant until she said if I was ever pregnant again, I should let them know I gave birth quickly. Her metaphor was a bit off though. I gave birth like a 37-year-old.

But when I talk about ageism affecting my life, what I’m really talking about is not being seen as anything but my age. And my chronological age at that.

That’s exactly what we’re seeing with COVID-19 in many places around the world. Older people are being told they may be in lockdown indefinitely simply because of their age. The opportunity to access care in countries unprepared for COVID-19 has in some cases been dependent on how old you are instead of how good your chances of survival might be. To hear that your life has been weighed up as being long enough and that ultimately, the economy is more important, is not pleasant or necessary.

Older people, geriatricians, gerontologists, and researchers of ageing all know that as humans, we don’t get more similar as we grow older. In fact, it’s the complete opposite – we become more different. Many 70-year-olds could easily outrun me (Simon’s mum, at 71, runs a mile round the back garden at the moment) and some 30-year-olds couldn’t.

During an Age-Friendly Community Forum last year, I heard a story about an Aboriginal tribe in the Northern Territory. The story was told second-hand, so I don’t know if it’s true or which tribe it refers to. So the story goes, when times were tough and food was scarce, the tribe would make have to make difficult decisions about how to share out the available resources among both younger and older members. Both vulnerable components of the tribe. You might assume the tribe would value the younger people more – they’re young, have more life to live and are necessary for the ongoing survival of the tribe. But they didn’t. The tribe ensured the survival of the older members. Why would they do this, we asked? Because the older people were the keepers of the stories and traditions, the oral history and lores that bound the tribe together as well as the holders of knowledge of the land and country. Without them, the tribe would be lost and in danger so ensuring their survival was vital.

While the veracity of this story is in question, the moral holds true. If we don’t value our elders, we will lose our sense of identity as a society, our way forward likely to be based on greed and shrift, not empathy and understanding.  Inequity will flourish and youth will be held up high above all else. Some may say this has already happened. Cynical me agrees. But idealistic me says change is always possible and it’s never too late to start making a difference.

How, you ask?

Share your stories about ageing, the good and the bad. Ageing isn’t homogenous and we shouldn’t make it seem like a joyride or a hellish either way.

Share your stories about ageism so we can name and shame and make change.

Speak out and stand up. Movements aren’t created without a little bravery now and then.

Want some advice on where and how to do these things? Get in touch. Movements are about working together, collaborating and putting all hands to the wheel.  The more the merrier.



Age Justice in a Time of Fear

Age Justice in a Time of Fear

On the weekend just passed, I was meant to be participating at the WOW Women of the World 2020 extravaganza in Brisbane.

How quickly things change.

My ten-minute bite was to be about creating an age justice movement for older women in Australia. And the world. What do I mean by Age Justice?

Well, let’s take a quick look at some statistics: older women make up a significant chunk of all older people. A higher proportion of women are aged 65 and over than men. Older women are almost twice as likely to live by themselves in older age as well and they are also more likely to need help with activities such as mobility, property maintenance and household chores(Source(s): ABS Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers: Summary of Findings 2018).

It’s also likely that for the older people who need significant care, the care and assistance they receive is probably provided by a woman, and most likely, a middle-aged woman.

Not only this, but these midlife and older women are more likely to be less well off financially then their male counterparts. As homemakers, part-time workers and child-bearers, their accumulated earnings are lower and less likely to carry them through a longer old age. Despite superannuation, midlife women are also less financially secure. Which, by the way, is an almost universal phenomenon, except in First Nation communities, where life expectancy is much lower than their settler counterparts.

Now let’s think about how visible these women are to society. Where do we see them? How do we see them? When do we see them? If you can’t think of many examples, it’s because they are indeed, virtually invisible. Their standing is compounded by ageism in almost every system – work, health, finance and the list goes on and on.

An age-justice movement aims to change those statistics. And WOW was to be the site of our first call to action.

Fortunately, we older women are pretty quick to adapt to stressful and uncertain times. WOW has now launched its digital portal, The Well. And I am working out just how to video myself so I can share my ten-minute WOW bite with a potentially even bigger community.  And perhaps, the call for an age-justice movement for women is now even more important. In this strange time of distant socialising, online connection and physical isolation, inequalities seem to rear their head even more.

Now is the time to make change that outlasts pandemics and shifts attitudes. If not now, then when? If not us, then who?


[Photo by sk on Unsplash]