Saturday, 6 April 2013

#349: Anti-Ageism

At the e-reader workshop for the techno-curious, I just happened to sit beside Paula, an expressive, enthusiastic woman who was one of my favourite volunteers when I was the library volunteer coordinator.

As we did a quick catch-up, she revealed with great enthusiasm that having just turned 70, she was going back to university to finish a degree. "But it's strange, the reaction I get", she told me. "I met some people from my program last Monday, and they were all so surprised. Completely mystified!  It was like they had never met a really mature student before. They kept saying Why are you doing this at your age?  You are going to school, and you aren't even going to get a job!" 

Still stewing about Overdrive's ageist put-down (#348: Techno-Grannies), I assured Paula that she was doing everyone a favour by returning to university.  She would get her degree, and her fellow students would learn that intellectual curiosity has no age limit.

In fact, I think that Paula has hit upon the best response to ageist slights of all kinds. Positive behaviours that defy expectations about old people are far more productive than grousing and griping about the way others see us.  Take Moses Znaimer's complaint in this month's Zoomer magazine about ageist synonyms for people his age (70): senior/old person/aging boomer/ and most especially, Dear.  He concludes they are all demeaning, although in the process he comes close to declaring himself a "grumpy old man".

The only way to rehabilitate "old" is by expanding the notion of what "older adults" (Moses, that's the best I can do) are capable of.  I can't help but fondly recall my Aunt Anne who took up belly dancing when she was over 80; she liked to perform in tights and leotard at the local retirement home where she (apparently) cheered up a number of grumpy old guys.  I'm not much of a dancer, and I'm through with university, but I'm thinking I should learn to use BitTorrent so I can pirate copies of Game of Thrones, Season 3.  Then I could tweet about it.

Try as we might, however, I'm not sure that ageism will ever, in spite of our best efforts, become as unacceptable as sexism and racism.  It is hard to admit, but while I can unequivocally declare that women and men of all ethnicities are equal in most things, older people really are often slower, and less adept at many tasks. They ask to have things repeated, they can't open those damned pill bottles, and they don't like driving at night.  And as we age, that list of challenges gets longer.

So we can work hard to combat ageism--- and we must--but if we are dissatisfied with the results, we need to get over it and let natural consequences unfold.   Because old folks all know a secret that makes ageist observations about the elderly just a tiny bit easier to tolerate. And here it is: although men will never walk a mile in ladies' stilettos, and white folks are unlikely to wake up some morning in a skin darker than their own, with time--and if they are lucky--everyone gets old.   

Take that, young whippersnappers!


  1. This ageism thing is, of course, a modern and predominantly western hangup. In my days as a teacher of English to recent migrants, one of the things I loved was the acceptability of my age. I was seen as valuable and wise because I'd managed to stick at existence for so long.

    I also remember in 1991, when I was in my early fifties, in a shop in Ho Chi Minh city with a friend, s few years younger than me but prematurely grey. We queued to be served but I was ever so gently placed behind my friend because, as the assistant explained 'she was older'. I felt a mixture of feelings: embarrassment for not observing the custons of the country I was visiting, a need to explain that I was, actually, older, and a sense of triumph that I was preceived to be younger. However, overall I felt that I had learned a lesson about respect. It didn't matter that the shop assistant had misread the cues for age in my eithnicity, she had her values and kept to them.

  2. I blame this unfortunate development -- the decline of respect for older people--on the invention of the teenager. Unwittingly, I participated happily in this ascendency back in the 50s. Little did I know that I (and my cohort) were doing our generation a disservice to be revealed 50 years later.