Against Ageism

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

Embroided Pattern of Several Old Women
Illustration by Mariah Llanes

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.

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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, cross-country 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 antisemitism, 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.”

Sharon Butala
Sharon Butala is an Officer of the Order of Canada and has published twenty books of fiction and non-fiction.
Mariah Llanes
Mariah Llanes has drawn for the Globe and Mail, Swerve, and Narratively.