From the day we are born, they are everywhere: older people. They look big and blurry, they sound loud, and they smell of all things foreign. It’s scary.
During our first year we learn to recognise a few of them. To our distress, there are several that we don’t recognise. Slowly we begin to realise how many older people there truly are. We are outnumbered.
At least we have a voice that equals the best of them and the waterworks needed to tug at their heartstrings. Not that all of us are born among people with heartstrings to tug at. In some cases, the strings have been cut by life’s disappointments; in others, they never existed.
In our early years older people decide everything. What and when we eat (if we deign to eat), where and when we sleep (if we feel like sleeping), who and what we play with, and when we do so (if we feel like playing) – the list goes on. We learn passive resistance early. We may not be able to decide our daily program, but we know how to upset it.
Before we know it, we are carted off to schools: primary, secondary, tertiary. We may not have the opportunity to attend all, or agree with older people regarding the right amount of schooling, but off we go to be taught at least something by older people.
Older people tell us their truths daily. We are a captive (albeit possibly resistant) audience to our family, relatives, teachers, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, even passers-by. We are supposed to listen to older people.
The hold that older people have on us seldom lasts forever. Most of us break free at some time and forge our own way. Partnerships and families are formed. Working years accumulate.
More and more people see us as older people.
There are some perks to joining the older people. If we are lucky enough to advance at work, we have more say and pay. We may even be able to do what we want – if we have the necessary time, health, authority and money, and the blessing of those who are left behind to hold the fort (at home or at work).
Few do, as there is added responsibility too. It always comes as something of a surprise, even when we think we are prepared. Suddenly it’s all up to us: the housing, the feeding, the clothing, the working, the caretaking, the lifelong learning – all of life’s many practicalities. Where are the older people when we need them?
Before we know it, we are truly one of them. In most people’s eyes, if not yet our own.
This blog was inspired by an article in The Times titled “It’s time we saw older people as a blessing and not a problem”. The writer, fiftysomething Janice Turner, had a rude awakening when she realised that she now qualified for the “silver surfer” session at her local swimming pool. The session was open for anyone over 50. The fact that the young cashier unquestioningly took her money, lumping her with the properly ancient, filled her with gloom.
This made her raise her writer’s voice to demand that society should stop stigmatizing the older generation as bed-blockers and asset hoarders and start utilising their talents. Being one of them – the older people – I naturally seconded that thought; only to have second thoughts.
It would be so easy to go along with Janice. It’s not fun when your positions of power start to erode with age. And they do erode in most cases; be they that of familial power, physical power, talent, personal attractiveness, authority over others, money, or a combination of these and more. Even money in the pocket seldom cures all ills, contrary to popular sayings.
Suddenly you may find that you’re the only boat out there in the cold; alone in your slot.
From day one we have a love-hate relationship with older people. We love their care and concern, but we feel helpless and resentful in the face of their power over the simplest things, starting with food and rest.
We learn by example. Sadly not only by the example set by our own parents, but by that set by ourselves and everyone around us. Few of us manage to grow up without ever experiencing resentment against the hold older people have on us.
Ageism is deep in most cultures. It’s not too late to start preaching against it at fiftysomething. But it would be much more believable and effective, if we had our awakenings earlier. When we are not yet pleading our own case.
We all struggle forward on life’s bumpy road as best we can. Although the past may weigh on some of us, and the future may cause concern for others, today consumes most of our time. Our daily concerns are foremost in our mind.
Sometimes they include the care of ageing family and friends. For a fleeting moment we see ourselves in the same position in future years. There is seldom time for deeper contemplation of ageism, however. We have our own life to live, and there are so many other pressing “isms” to fight.
So here I am. I have always been one of the older people to someone. Now I am it to most. Like Janice Turner, I recognise that my age has begun to make people slot me in categories that I find offensive. I may be old, but I’m not that old.
There I go. Just listen to me – and Janice Turner. If we find it offensive that we are considered elderly, and argue that those in their fifties, sixties and seventies should still be considered useful, what does it say about us?
If we feel the need to shout “that’s not us, that’s someone else”, we are typical ageists.
It seems ageism is something we are born to. There will always be older people. How we treat them is not about age. It’s about us. If we don’t take time to really know and appreciate people, be they older or younger, why should we expect others to do so.
So Janice, when you start worrying about people truly older than you; the ones in the group you are not ready to be identified with yet – the not so useful citizens – that’s when the fight against ageism starts.
As so many things do, it starts at home.
While I wish you all a Happy Year 2018, I invite you to join me in my New Year’s resolution. I am going to take the time to get to know and appreciate a few more people, both older and younger.