The experience of being at the receiving end of ageism is so common that it becomes normalised. I have been surprised in the last few months to notice how this ageism is expressed.
For my 77th birthday I decided that instead of treating myself to a big loud party with food and lots of drink, or a special trip abroad with my partner, I would organise a type of feminist family workshop. I invited the women of the family that I knew to a women-only gathering. Some women of the next generation to mine did not know each other and I had not seen some of them for a long time. My aim was to put in contact the young ones and the old ones. After the initial surprise of being invited to a women only event, 16 women attended . There were three of us aged over 60: 64,72 and me , the rest were between 25 and 50. We started the day by introducing ourselves. I prefaced the session by saying how surprised I was that at an intergenerational feminist workshop, the younger women were only interested in our past. There was a very animated exchange of information by the young women and by the end of the day we knew what their main interests and work were, what it is like to work in male dominated areas and the women who were important in their lives. Of the old women lives we learnt nothing.
I encountered again this lack of curiosity at a health retreat that I attended for my diabetes type 2 diet maintenance. I was by far the oldest person there – 20 years older. Again apart from two or three people who treated me equally there was a general diffidence in getting too near me. There were no questions asked about what I did and a certain embarrassment in talking to me. It is as if my white hair gave a signal that I needed to be treated differently from the others.
The last instance was recently. My husband’s niece visited us. In her childhood she spent a lot of time with us and the two families were very close. But in her adulthood she kept no contact with us at all. She talked for two hours about her activities and interests but did not enquire about what our life was made of.
If these experiences are not specific to me, is it a surprise that young people fear old age? The fear of the unknown? Is this lack of interest about old people general? Evidently it is One of the old women in the Crystal Quilt installation says: Woman 5:
I think a lot of senility comes from the fact that nobody asks you anything. Nobody includes you in the social ceremonials. Nobody asks you about your… to speak and pretty soon you lose your memory or nobody listens. I suffer a lot from people not listening to me. It’s like not having a great, aged tree to sit on or protect you or look at or to feel. I think it’s a great cultural loss
Is the lack of curiosity about our lives a defense mechanism? Wouldn’t knowing us better allay these fears? Is this lack of links between the generations due to the young women lack of interest or to the old women silence? At the family gathering the 72 years deputy head of a big international school in Paris – still working – did not come forward to say that she was considered as an expert in the field of introducing new methods of teaching Maths. Neither did the 62 years old explain her life long knowledge of child development and her continuing work in supporting families with learning difficulties children. I did not mention my interest in old women representation, my feminist activities, my blog, my French class. As the older woman in this gathering I was just the source of anecdotal stories about the past.
Interest about old people is in the news, mainly in connection with the cost of care. But do we know the different ways of feeling old, being old.
We should not wait to be asked…