‘What is Old Age’ ? New perspectives from the Humanities conference

The compensation of growing old … was simply this; that the passion remains as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.    VIRGINIA WOOLF, Mrs. Dalloway

 I attended the conference “What is old age ? New perspectives from the Humanities” at the University of Warwick. It was a fascinating day.

When I used to take my very young mixed race granddaughter on holiday with me I noticed that the first thing she would do was to scan the hotel, the beach, the streets to see if there were people who were black like her and then tended to gravitate towards them. I find myself doing the same thing these days. Looking around the assembly of scholars I noticed that the majority were women. The delegate list gives 48 women and 10 men. Next I look for people with white hair. There were very few of us.  It seemed to me that in general the delegates were ‘young’. Of course without actual data on ages it is impossible to judge the age range of the participants. Assigning ages is difficult these days with hair dye and good dental care.  I may be mistaken but I think there was no participants above the age of ….. 65?  The only person who gave a personal presentation not based on a research paper was an old man of over 70.

These observations apart I found the day very stimulating. I was amazed by the diversity of papers and the richness of information that I gathered.   From ageism in the Middle Ages to the haptic turn in the representation of women in German cinema the topics put my own experience of ageing in a wide context. I relished revisiting Beckett’s  Krapp and Malone. In these days of ‘positive ageing’ when the old body and death are ignored I had to smile   at the accuracy of some of Maximianus descriptions.  There was also a live old man speaking about his life course and the importance of theology.

But among all the young women voices interested in and researching old age , I longed to hear an old woman speaking for herself, a writer, a poet, an actor, a painter.

Let Us Talk About Mental Health

I attended a focus group yesterday ‘Let us talk about Mental Health’. It was organised by Age Uk and the GLF ( Greater London Forum for Old People)   for a programme of  the National Development Team for Inclusion. The three-year programme ‘Leaders for Change in Mental Health’  aims are:

– Build the confidence, skills and capacity of older people who use mental health services. – To lead and influence change in their own lives and in wider service developments.         – Increase the voice, visibility and influence of older people with mental health problems.    – Develop and test innovative ways of promoting and enhancing mental health and wellbeing  later life in the two participating areas.                                                                                     – Increase  awareness, understanding and  education about mental ill-health in later life. A key element of the work will be to tackle the stigma, fear, and isolation that many older people with mental health problems experience.

The morning was very instructive. The first point that was interesting was that the facilitator had to stress a few times that this session was NOT about Alzheimer’s. This immediately made me conscious of my own bias of equating mental illness in the old with dementia.

We were then given facts and figures about the degree of discrimination against the old in the field of Mental Health. It is staggering. In the field of depression  for example 1 in 4 people live with depression, only 25% are diagnosed and less than 2% are referred to primary care psychological therapy. This is only one example, figures about other mental illnesses are as devastating.

We then discussed what needs to change to remedy this state of serious discrimination.

The NDTI (National Development Team for Inclusion) three years programme of training older people to  ‘ Increase awareness and understanding , agree local priorities for change, including tackling stigma, negative attitudes and stereotypes about age and mental illness and influence local service development and delivery’ is commendable. It is all too rare to empower old people to have a voice and fight for their rights.

During our discussions however at our table, isolation, and the lack of resources at the first point of access, the GP, were the main issues to be considered. We live in a climate of drastic services cuts. Day centres, libraries, community services are being dismantled and the GP consultation is limited to 10 mins and one issue. Hardly conditions that facilitate the observation of people who need psychological support and help. There is  a crisis in social care, care workers are badly paid and sometimes badly trained. No amount of consciousness raising on its own would help changing the situation of mental health neglect but  also diverting major resources into community projects might.


A contribution from a friend Liz, aged 80 . Works as mentor in Social Work Training. 

 …I’ve also picked from my ‘to read’ pile of books one by Marie de Hennezel, ‘The Warmth of the Heart prevents your Body from Rusting’, wondering why I have picked it up and put it down several times. I think it has to do with my refusal to let anyone else (except Social Security provisions) define how I live my life. It’s not hard to just do what I can do (and remind myself that I’m lucky to be able to do so), but it is hard not to be angry  when someone looks at me and says ‘No, you’re not as old as you say you are.’ Who defines us?

Ageism Young and Old.

Two items were posted on Ageing Studies’ Facebook yesterday.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvxZcULxfKw this one was an advertisement about a fast-food product that I will not name so as not to give them more publicity. I found it profoundly insulting. It seems that the only way to show that old people are ‘full of life’ is to stereotype the youth and fit old people to this image. It happens often (see my film blog about Cloud 9)  I did not think it funny or effective as an advertisement.  But I found it interesting in the way it is ageist not only about the old but also about the young.

http://startingpoint.blogs.cnn.com/2013/02/04/video-taco-bell-super-bowl-ad-seniors-grandmas-and-grandpas-are-still-full-of-life/?iref=allsearch . This one is the interview of two of the actors Ernie Misko and Beverly Polcyn on of the above advert.  In a bizarre way after getting used to Polcyn’s strident tones I saw in it two actors being ironical about the whole event. They were – specially Polcyn- acting the stereotype of the old trying to be young.   In  a way it was the interviewers who appeared ridiculous.

Readers of this blog please let me know what YOU  think.

LACY, silver action, talking and doing.

It was expected that Lacy’s event at the Tate would trend on Twitter. It did not. But today two days after the event at last yes Growing Old Disgracefully were mentioned apparently interviewed by Lacy. I was not aware of their presence and neither were the people at my table or at the workshop. Anti-oil activism was the only activism mentioned on Twitter until today. It occurs to me that the problem of the whole project was  that it was focused on talking and being constrained to remain at our table limited in space and time.

Activism is doing. Old women are activists in  all spheres of political action, resistance, and fights for justice and in Art and Education. There are old women active and influential in the Peace movement, in the  Occupy movement, in the Green and Climate Change movements, in the education of young women and in the fight for the National Health Service, in Pensioners Forums  and other organisations that are fighting for a fair and just word.  And of course old women are volunteers in a host of charitable organisations. They are activist in the family too. All these women are invisible in real life because they are not considered as old but exceptional in their own activist group or else dismissed because they are in the caring field.  It is the ‘my best friend is Black, Jewish, Moslem, Old’ effect.

But also we have internalised this ageism. If we are energetic and healthy we say ” we are not old” even if we have to dye our hair and have plastic surgery and Botox injections.  If we are hard of hearing we do not raise our voice to ask for people to project their own.  We do not demand from the organisers of every demonstration to have special arrangements for old people who cannot walk or stand for hours. In feminist conferences there are old women on the panels but they do not mention that their expertise is due to age. There are  no workshops about what is like to be over 60. What is the journey from the age 60 to 90+ like? What is our contribution as older women to society, and what are our fears. Our past may be recognised but our present is not acknowledged.

I dream of an event in the tanks where old women would come and mill around with the audience showing placards of their field of action past and present local or universal. Where the walls would be plastered with photos of old women in protest. Where women in wheelchairs and their carers and grandmothers and grandchildren would mix with everybody else….

I dream… I dream …


I shall be a spoil sport.  The women I talked to at the Tate, a lot of the tweets, declare that it was a wonderful event. Well I think it was a disappointing mess of an event. Although wonderfully organised it did not to my mind achieve anything either at the workshop (see previous post on this blog but specially the comments)  or on the day.

I have been an old woman activist against ageism  for the last 18 years. What I have experienced is that ageism permeates our language, culture  and our consciousness.

Let us start with the title of Lacy’s project. If you Google ‘silver action’ you get a Turkish football site. Why did Lacy change her original title from ‘grey hair action’?  Also the word ageism  did not feature in this event.

As I detailed in my previous post on this blog the workshop I attended was not conducive to talk about our present. In real life old women are invisible. More than their physical presence, it is what they do with their time, working or after retiring and/or raising a family that is absent from public life. It is their experience of advancing age with all its liberation and difficulties that are not talked about.  It was symbolic that the timeline  on the wall extended from 1945 to 2000. There was not enough room for the 27 women present to post  their activities after 2000. The age range being 60+ it would have been extremely interesting.

On the day of the event the intimate encounter of 4 women was of course interesting as women encounters always are.  We could have talked for much longer but the time available was very limiting. Also we were unaware of the space around us and the different activities that were happening. Did I feel manipulated? Not really but I felt that this part of the event was redundant for me. I belong to the Older Feminist Network, Women in Black, Old Women in Film Group, I only recently lapsed in my membership of Growing Old Disgracefully. I wanted to know what issues were discussed in the other workshops. I imagine that Lacy’s final work will provide me with this experience.

On the tweets the general impression is not one  of  rebellion, resistance. A few mentions of the cuts, of campaigns that individuals are part of but not a feeling of general militancy against violence, and social  injustice.  

When they are frail, old women are completely ignored. The frail old woman is ‘other’. There was no space and time for talk on militancy on this subject.  Let us talk about Greenham and feminist consciousness, let us talk about our youth and feminist ideas, let us talk about the young women. But the fear of disability and death that pervades our public life prevents us from acknowledging the old frail woman and there is no solidarity expressed publicly. 

 I will end on a positive note. As usual a woman only space has been enormously enjoyable.  

Grey Hair Action or Silver Action at the Tate.

Suzanne Lacy’s project at the Tate Modern. Went to one of the 10 workshops in preparation for the performance event tomorrow. I am so downhearted.

The open call to participate was titled “Grey Hair Action”. We were told yesterday that  Lacy had to bow to the Tate marketing department and the later publicity and news called the project ‘Silver Action’. I consider this as a blatant example of ageism. In a brief discussion with a couple of women I was told that silver has positive connotations:  quick silver, sparkle etc… I disagree. Do we have to be ashamed of our white hair in an event supposed to be a celebration of old age ?

I had hoped that in the workshop we would discuss ageing: our contribution to society in general, our activities and experiences as old women  how our ageing affect our lives. I thought the issues of the double jeopardy of ageism and sexism in the media and our invisibility would be raised. I thought that the issue of the crises in care and the cuts would be raised. They may have been talked about in the other workshops. I hope they were.

I hope that tomorrow will be more inspiring.

please see comments for more details.