WHY I SMILE AT CHILDREN or ageism is alive and well.

 

I am ‘gutted’ as my grandson would say. For the second time in a month I turn up at the Bank without the necessary documentation that I had prepared carefully on the kitchen table.

When I arrived back home I burst into tears. Not because of the event but because of the thought of what the bank manager and staff would think of me. I am used to these lapses and am learning how to minimising them. I remember how my now deceased friend panicked in these circumstances and on the whole I manage them with serenity. At nearly 82 I have been coping reasonably well with the decline of certain faculties. But a recent experience made me feel worthless.
At a conference coffee break, a recently retired academic knowing that I am a U3A (University of the Third Age)  member announced that she had joined the organisation. She proceeded to describe in the most vicious ageist terms the behaviour of the members of her group. I could not believe my ears when she ascribed mockingly to each one of them the most ageist, prejudiced characteristics that I have come across in my 20 years of being interested in the representation of old women.

It left me speechless trying to understand what was going on and the meaning of this diatribe.

The episode did make a mark on me. If an old woman academic could perceive us old women in this way, talk about us in this way what do other people think when they see my white hair, my sometimes unsteady gait, my forgetfulness?

Maybe that is why, in the tube, in the street I smile at little children who look at me with interest.

THE TERRIBLE 92 – part 2

Advice to myself and carers

There is no fooling ma tante Salma, her senses are all there: with her eagle eyes she will notice any minor change you dare make in her surrounding, any change of expression in your face. Her nose will smell the cucumber being cut in the room next door or the tiniest drop of sweat you may harbour. And I swear she must have a 7th sense that allows her to guess people’s thoughts and their next move within a centimetre of precision.
Her memory is all there and my ears are going to explode with tales of money, success, status, past splendour: les soirees, les brilliants et les toilettes (the evening parties, diamonds and chic clothes) often repeated again and again…
And now what? With all her money, she is pacing round and round in her room and in her head, worrying about the next pipi. Worrying about millions of minor problems, not being able to abdicate her authority on her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren…after all I have done for them
She lives in anticipation of what will happen in the next days with great anxiety.
Are these common features of old age? Or is it the result of living in exile? Past traumas not digested?

After my three weeks’ stint caring for Salma, I made myself some observations about old age .
It is very important to explain to anxious older people when and how things will happen, even if it is not what they want, rather than being vague and letting them build scenarios in their head
We must not think that age diminishes the intellect or the senses and we must treat old people as normal adults
Do not contradict old people, they usually know best but sometimes when they don’t, let it pass, or you may get a tantrum, it is not worth it
It is vital not to forget who the person is and recognise all what they have achieved in their life when they are still alive, not only at their funerals
Old people still need touch, kisses, love and little gifts of the things they like

Reminders for myself:
Do your pelvic floor exercise on the hour every hour
Notice any obsessions that may develop, acknowledge them and try to move on
Ask for help and accept help graciously, don’t forget to say thank you
Do not expect people to communicate with you if I you do not put your hearing aid
Make sure you have a non-judgmental friend or two to whom you can lash out all your woes without being contradicted
What money you have, USE IT! for your comfort and amusement, what are you waiting for?

Someone should devise a course on growing old that is not only about how to eat well, how to stay active and warm, but about the behaviours we can develop, how to deal with psychological changes. The usual response from the near and dear is : ah! she needs antidepressant”, donnez lui un calmant…

My Aunt Salma or The Terrible 92s

I was hoping that this blog would permit some of my friends to contribute to our experiences of ageing. Finally a friend (aged 66) who was asked to look after an aunt for a month’s holiday sent me the following:

My Aunt Salma
My aunt Salma left her home town of Aleppo aged 22 to marry an old millionaire from Cairo, they then settled in Milano. Now aged 92, and a widow for many moons, she has lost her past glory and beauty and is looking more and more like a bird of prey with a hooked nose, piercing cold eyes that notice everything and fingers that have morphed into bluish claws.

She rules the roost with an iron beak, maybe she always did? But now with her faculties in decline and being dependant on others for her basic needs, she has become a tyrant. Who will she pounce on next?

Are these genetic traits that I will inherit? Maybe I am already a tyrant and not aware of it!

Do we all grow old in a similar way? Do we share common characteristics? I wonder…:

The desperate need to be recognised for who we were and what we have achieved

The need for love given without asking

The need for touch and kisses

The frustration when things are not done the way we want them

The over active brain that cannot settle on the moment, because what is there anymore now? And it races 100 miles ahead, worrying and anticipating, rehashing bad deeds that people have done to us recently or in the past

The obsession with our bodies: where is it hurting today? how high is the blood pressure? Why am I peeing so much suddenly?

Lashing out at carers who are not following the proper routine on how to apply the Nivea cream, the order in which to put on garments

Lashing out at family members who do not care to phone or visit regularly or say thank you for all what we have done for them

Blaming everyone else for everything that goes wrong, it is never our fault

Refusing to acknowledge our limitations and making everyone’s life miserable because we won’t use a wheel chair or a stick or pay for a taxi when we can afford hundreds of them

And I want this and I don’t want that or is it the other way around?

This is all very tiring ….

Nothing really that a good dose of Arsenic 200c cannot solve

OLD WOMEN ACTIVISTS

There are images of old women as fashion setters, there are images of old women weightlifters, images of old women dancing. As a rule very few images of old women activists.

Please look at these portraits.

http://972mag.com/photos-israeli-women-who-have-stood-up-to-the-occupation-for-26-years/88005/

8th International Conference on Cultural Gerontology.

More than the theatre but not as much as films I love attending lectures given by academics. I appreciate their enthusiasm with the subject and enjoy good performances and communication skills. So where else to go this April but to the 8th International Conference on Cultural Gerontology in Galway.  What a feast it was for me who is often derided for my interest in Ageing.  There was 164 presentations in such diverse categories as Health and The Life Course, Ageing and Care, Arts and Humanities, Ageing in Diverse Cultural Settings, Place and Space, Meaning and Ageing, Theoretical Perspectives, Ageing and Technology, Ageing and Culture, Ageing and the Media, Policy and Ageing, Ageing and Sexuality, Ageing and the Body, Ageing and Aesthetics, Ageing and Ideology, Ageing and Performativity, Age and Ageism, Ageing and Identities, Work and Retirement, Arts and Health, Ageing and Photography/Video, Perceptions of Ageing.

I attended two of the three Plenaries and the performances of the two speakers were great. H. Moody gave a fiery performance in “Gray is Green: Elders and the Care for the Earth”  on the urgent need for our generation to engage in the fight to combat climate change. He argued that this is the main intergenerational project that we as the elders should engage in.  He knew exactly the two extreme positions that people our age tend to:  one of denial and dismissal and the other of despair and the “I am glad I will not be there” feelings.  He suggested to concentrate on some of the successes achieved to empower us to act and campaign.

On a completely different subject, Aagje Swinnen from the Netherlands gave us “Healing Words” and practical demonstration when she reported on poetry intervention in Dementia Care. She was as passionate and engaging about her subject as Moody. I felt grateful that there are some places where people suffering from Alzheimer’s are given some chance to communicate. And that there are people who dedicate themselves to this purpose.

Of the other 164 or so presentations  there were many I would have liked to attend. Some timings clashed and I wanted to have a day off to visit this part of Ireland which is so picturesque. I attended 12 presentations but will only report on three of them that I was particularly interested in as a lay person.

I often think that in the public arena the campaigns, projects and workshops about ‘positive ageing’ often ignore the  inevitability of disability. I have been to conferences for old people and community projects where accessibility and sound was very poor. I was delighted to hear Leni Marshall on this subject and can do no better that quote from her abstract :  “Conscious Aging is aging with an awareness of age studies and an activist response, with an understanding of individual identity as adaptable, capable of remaining intact even as it changes…. Combining conscious aging with a similar understanding about disability and ableism leads to a new awareness – that is, to conscious ageility”.

I met Pamela Gravagne whose book “The Becoming of Age”  on films I so admired. She tackled a completely different subject, one that bothers me when I read newspaper reports about brain imaging and the latest findings, lavishly illustrated with coloured pictures. Her talk “The (MIs)measure of Age: The constructions of Difference from Phrenology to Neurosciences” delighted me.  I kept thinking : yes , yes during her talk. She said how some neuroscientific findings often show in images the decrease in size of ‘older’ brains and justify a negative perception of old people. Having worked in a neurophysiology lab I know very well that brain function is highly plastic and depends, on physiology but also on environment and experience. I also know that imaging signals are often difficult to interpret and open to bias.  I felt I was justified in my scepticism of the general press reports .

Finally I attended the session on Ageing and Sexualities. I wanted to learn the results of Rhiannon Jones “The Experiences, Meanings, and Challenges of Older Women’s Sexualities”. Years ago I was one of her subjects and was interviewed on the phone on two occasions. I liked her approach of asking me how I thought the research should be carried out and how I felt about sex and sexual practices. I was delighted to hear that she used a wide definition of sexuality. I can only agree fully with her conclusion that “the fluidity and diversity of experiences that the older women participants narrated with this  study not only make a generalised statement about sexuality with the context of ageing impossible but also undesirable. “

This is a meagre report on a fascinating conference. There was such a lot to satisfy the interest of anybody old or young. Given the invisibility of old women in the public sphere I was excited to see that there is such a lot going on. It is a whole culture out there that most of us know little about and I fully agree with Leni Marshall. I feel I need to be aware of ageing and disability studies in order to achieve conscious ageing and consequent activism.

I enjoyed being there. Very conscious of the pressures that the participants were under, giving papers, making contacts, and worrying about funding and jobs. I had no idea how I was perceived. With the confidence that I have acquired through the responses to my film blog and the support of my film group, I felt free. So free that I decided to miss the last day and went sightseeing. But as an aside, even in this environment of 400 delegates engaged in ageing studies I was dumbfounded when one of the participants, aged 65, that I occasionally see at conferences exclaimed: “Oh you are here. You look tired, shall I get you a chair? ” . I assure you that I was full of beans, relaxed,  and not at all in need of assistance.

 

 

Ageing and Photos

Some thoughts about a workshop I attended in the context of Sukey Parnell’s new project.   (see  my post on http://www.oldwomaninfeaturefilms.wordpress.com). They are thoughts of a personal nature that occurred to me as a result of the experience of being part of a group of women who commented on portraits of old women.

In my childhood I remember that as the only girl in the family,  I rebelled against being treated differently from my brothers. Whether this extended to the way I was made to dress I cannot remember. But I remember very clearly that when my brother reached his 13th birthday (bar mitzvah age)  he was given among other substantial presents  a Kodak camera. I was 11 and very envious, knowing that I would not get the same shower of gifts on my 13th birthday. I was fascinated by the camera and wanted to handle this wonderful machine. I sneaked into his bedroom and started to handle the camera. I damaged the film  not knowing what I was doing and was thoroughly told off.

In my teens I lived in a multi ethnic country where the veil as well as summer dresses with short sleeves mixed freely. However the display of much flesh – shorts, deep decolletes – were not considered acceptable. I bought myself a camera and shunning the usual snapshots being taken at the time I fancied myself as a superior photographer. This interest faded away when I left the family home. Appearance has never been for me an important part of  my ‘self’. I did wear a little make up but very rarely looked at myself in the mirror. I had enough attention from young men  in a wide circle of friends not to need to strive to attract them. I relied more on the pleasure of sharing activities with them than the pleasure of being looked at  with desire.   I resented the tyranny of shaving legs, plucking eyebrows,  going to the hairdresser (a weekly chore in our circle), the painful high heels (trousers were not worn by women at this time). It is in the 80s that I felt liberated and decided to do away with anything I did not feel comfortable in or wasted my precious time. Now at 78 I only wear inconspicuous trousers and t-shirts or blouses.

This background is  to explain my reaction to the old woman who came to the session wearing a an amazingly beautiful confection of bows and ribbons and other artefacts for a hat.  A skirt and top of many layers, colours and shapes completed what I call the  “look at me” style. I was neither shocked nor intrigued. I often see on the London Tube an old woman who is dressed in pink from hat to shoes wheeling a pink suitcase. I have old women friends who consider dressing  a performance and when I came across Ari Seth Cohen’s site (advancedstyle.blogspot.com/), I enjoyed the photos but they never touched me or enlighten me. The same occurs when portraits of old women, mainly faces are shown, like Harriet Walter’s exhibition at the South Bank a few years ago. All I can think is yes, great and take note of facial expressions and clothes.

Over the years I have collected images of old women: postcards, magazine covers, calendars and projects by individual photographers. Three images remain in my head: an old woman at market in India sitting on the floor behind a pyramid of guavas. (V.B. photographer); the other a postcard (http://www.meisstudio.gr) is of two Greek old women talking to each other. They carry big bundles of vegetation – flowers?, herbs ? One is seen from the back the other in profile, both are dressed in black from shoes to headscarf  .  The third photos is by Cartier Bresson – Brasserie Lip 1969 – a cafe than I pass regularly when I am in Paris. There are two women sitting at tables.  In the background, an old woman is holding a newspaper, but she is looking at a young woman in miniskirt with her hair hiding her face. The first two photos are beautifully lit and composed.  The third one intrigues me. It would be a wonderful tool to use in  intergenerational discussions  about old and young women.

The three series of  photos of old women are photos all taken by women photographers. Amber Larder produced a small book “Retired Notions” for her graduate project: the portraits within this book are of individuals who represent the social participation of the retired population of our society, a community which is commonly portrayed as passive and dependent . The subjects, both men and women seen in an environment that they chose also provide a statement.  

Olivia Mc. Gilchrist took photos of the members of Older Feminist Network for the Women’s Resource Centre. The women stand straight and look straight into the camera in their everyday clothing. But the collection also show these women socialising around a buffet or in the middle of a meeting.

Rose Osbourne’s photos of  Women in Black in Australia are more dramatic and appeal to me the most. Not specifically about older women, the majority of the peace activists were old. The black and white photos emphasise the message. The women are dressed in black and hold a placard  with a white peace dove sketch.  The  dove and the women’s face are paired: various faces, same dove.

In this reflection on my relationship with photography I try to understand my gut reaction to the photo at Sukey’s workshop. Whereas the images I talked about above stimulated my intellect, that image hit me. I did away with all my critical faculties, I would need more theoretical background to understand this effect. It is the movement in the photo that striked me. The woman as an individual disappeared and all I could see was movement.  But the flowing grey hair and the outstretched arm also signified the ageing body.

Did this photo provide for me a fantasy of free body movement at a time when I feel less nimble than in my youth? For that brief moment I certainly wanted to be her.

‘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.