On reaching 65

I officially entered senior citizenry (or, as one friend calls it “the brown envelope club,” even though Old Age Security payments no longer arrive in the mail) earlier this week.

I could tell you that I celebrated that occasion by climbing one of the rock faces at Hautes Gorges de la Malbaie, where my partner and I were spending the last day of our vacation, or that I went parasailing or that I did a bungie jump, but none of those stories would be true.

I was more than content – as I would have been when I turned 40 or 50 or 60 – to drink in the beauty of the highest mountains east of the Rockies looking up at them from ground level and then to spend the evening eating a farm to table dinner at a local fromagerie.

What’s to celebrate?

Not realizing that this momentous birthday was around the corner, a friend recently sent me an article about ageism. It painted a bleak picture about societal attitudes towards older people.

There are 600 million people over the age of 60 around the world, and that number is expected to double by 2025. That’s a lot of old people; yet, according to recent research, old-age based discrimination is both rampant and unacknowledged. Jokes about doddering oldsters are considered socially acceptable, for example, whereas jokes based on group stereotypes against most other demographics are not. Old people’s medical complaints are often treated dismissively by medical professionals.

As we age, we may face increased scrutiny by our adult (and also ageing) children. (Think Grace and Frankie, season 5, for some powerful images of adult children infantalizing their more than competent mothers the minute they show any signs of ageing. In fact, this Netflix show generally does a great job of exploring the issues of ageing for women.)

The list goes on, but the conclusion is straightforward: we become increasingly invisible and unimportant as we age.

Donna Wilson, co-author of one of the studies referred to, notes that:

“Ageism is now thought to be the most common form of prejudice.”

A 2002 Yale University study gave me cause to pause: it found that older people with negative views about ageing live 7.5 years less than those with a more positive view.

I definitely have a negative attitude about getting old. I have never really liked old people and now, here I am, officially one of them myself.  And, many of my closest friends, people who I like a great deal, are older than I am. So, what’s that about?

Perhaps I can lay some of the responsibility at the feet of my long dead grandmother, who was pretty much my sole contact with anyone old when I was growing up. She was a demanding, self-centred woman who was no better at being a grandmother than she had been at being a mother. This grandmother did not offer either warm hugs or freshly baked cookies to her grandchildren. I found her terrifying and, because I did not have other aged relatives to provide a different image of being old, it is my memories of her that have shaped my attitudes to ageing, or at least to the concept of being old.

Time for me to move on from those memories if I want to move into my older age with any cheerfulness at all.

No country for old women

There is no doubt that ageing is even tougher for women than it is for men.

Sarah Manguso, in her recent New Yorker review of books on menopause, notes that when women age, we become

“not only invisible but despised. . . We are culturally prepared to perceive women’s natural aging as uninteresting at best, pathological at worst – deserving of dismissal or disgust or both.”

According to Statistics Canada, women’s income from all sources between the ages of 65 and 70 is approximately $30,000 while men’s averages $50,000. We know all too well why this is: during their working lives, women continue to earn just 72 cents for every dollar earned by men and we take much more time away from paid work than do men to raise children, which means we miss promotion opportunities and cannot contribute as much to pension and retirement plans.

Medical research, including in areas of particular concern to ageing women, continues to focus on men, so women who are dealing with, for instance, heart disease, may not receive a medical response that recognizes the differences between ageing women’s and ageing men’s responses to cardiac issues.

Women far more than men are encouraged at every turn to take all possible steps to hide the signs of ageing on our bodies. We are told we should want to look younger than we are and to celebrate when people think it is a compliment to tell us that we do.

It’s a bit of a gloomy prognosis, this getting old.

Shake it till those stars are gone

Better we should heed the advice of Jenny Joseph in her poem ”Warning:”

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn’t go . . .

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired

And gobble up samples in shops . . .

[And] wear terrible shirts and grow more fat

And eat three pounds of sausages at a go. . .

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I am old…”

I am not aiming to live to be 100, and hope that the law will allow me some control over when I decide I have been alive for long enough.

That said, a few days into being 65, I feel pretty fortunate. I have most of my marbles, enough money to be comfortable (at least for now), decent health, friends and family I love and who love me, and work about which I feel passionate.

As one of my favourite bands, Birds of Chicago, sings in Estrella Goodbye:

“Tomorrow’s gonna come and kill tonight

Least you could do

Is put up a fight . . .

I don’t care what they told you

Another day wiser is just another day older . . .

So get out on the lawn

Shake it till those stars are gone . . . Don’t let a good thing die!”

See you out there on the lawn!

2 thoughts on “On reaching 65

  1. Oh, you young thing! As I’m sitting here on the verge of 70, which seems really really old, I’ve been watching this stuff happen for a few years now. Getting dismissed from my last job at 63 was the beginning of a slippery slope, which I’m only now learning to just sink into and kick around . Losing your “looks” is one thing, but losing work and status (or pieces of your memory) is something else.

    Anyway, yes, those jokes about old fogeys certainly abound and it is physically and emotionally harder and harder to hold your head up, especially without work. I’m not one for being flamboyant and flaunting it all anymore, but to erase oneself just because nobody else seems to notice is another thing. Not acceptable. We’re still here.

    Will look forward to this discussion when you turn 70-and I’m on to 75.And thank you for this article.

  2. Wonderful post, Pam, thank you, and a big happy belated birthday, with love. Looking forward to shaking it with you soon 🙂

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