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.