Several events have occurred in the past two weeks that got me thinking about aging. (Actually, I often think about aging – it’s part of midlife musings.)
If you have been in an alternate universe or are one who has been completely successful at blocking social media (both of which are doubtful), you might have missed the headlines about CTV anchor Lisa LaFlamme being ‘cancelled’ at 58 years of age, despite years of accolades for being one of the best news persons in Canada. Public opinion is that she was let go because she ‘let go’ and allowed her hair to turn to a beautiful mane of grey. (With my rose-coloured glasses, I would like to think that there is more to the story than her grey hair and aging, but I can just hear my glass-half-empty friend say, “Debbie! Of course, it’s her grey hair.”)
This news has caused all types of public discourse about females and aging and ageism and the extent women go to in order to compete in the marketplace and in society – hair colours, face fillers, expensive face creams, body wraps . . . guilty on counts 1 and 3.
Almost simultaneously, I just finished reading a delightful little novel called “Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting”. Iona is a 57 year old woman who was once an entertainment star and is now a renowned advice columnist who suspects that she is being ‘moved out’ due to her age. She builds a nice little support group of incongruous people she meets on the London transit and constructs her own ‘second act’, so to speak. I like the author’s personal message at the back, and I quote from Clare Pooley: “ . . . I looked around and realized that, at thirty-nine, I’d become one of the oldest people in the office. I was also treated differently. I was at the height of my powers, and yet I was viewed as a dinosaur. Out-of-date and irrelevant. . . . “
Then, this week, I had to attend Court as a witness, one of the last ‘leftover’ tasks from my career. When I returned, my husband asked, “Well, do you miss work?” And I thought for a second. I told him, something to the effect, no, I do not miss work at all, but I do sometimes miss being identified as something. He commented, “When you retire, you are nobody.”
Whether you are Lisa or the fictional Iona or any one of us of a certain age, we all feel the effects of aging.
The question of whether there are double standards for men and women is a whole other story, as the saying goes, but both sexes feel society’s stigma of aging. In a 28 January 2022 article, ‘Aging Around the World’, Grace Weintrob of the Columbine Health Systems Centre for Health Aging, Colorado State University (research.colostate.edu), tells us that, in the United States, “80 percent of adults over the age of 50 have experienced age-based discrimination during their day-to-day”. She explained that Western cultures, as opposed to Eastern cultures, tend to place emphasis on younger generations, stemming from “Protestant values that tie an individual’s worth to their ability to work and be an active member of society”. But, she cautions, this requires further research as a study of college students from 26 cultures revealed that “Across all cultures, there was a consensus that aging comes with a decrease in physical attractiveness, everyday tasks, and learning new things. At the same time, cultures agreed that aging comes with an increase in general knowledge, wisdom, and respect.” I wonder what weight is put on these different factors – is it possible that physical appearance (which the students identified as the number one characteristic of aging) is valued more than wisdom??
Due to the aging population worldwide, there has to be an emphasis on society’s perceptions of growing older and the eventual care of elders. In her article, Grace Weintrob reminds us that “By 2060, demographers project that there will be 94.7 million older adults in the United States – almost three times the number of older adults than in the year 2000”.
The good news is that the exit of Lisa LaFlamme and the thoughtful research and articles have caused open discourse which should be an evolutionary step and help society put more emphasis on wisdom than on physical appearance.
But, wait. Society might think we are obsolete, but we elders do have a step up. Our brains are wonderfully adaptive. Think of people who have survived and thrived through serious physical or emotional damage. That is the adaptive brain at work. As we age, the things we once thought were important really are not that significant anymore and are replaced with something that does become important. The key is that the importance might not be related to what younger society expects (such as a career and activity) but the importance is to US and the people in our little group. We might be ‘nobody’ to society but we are ‘somebody’ to ourself, our family, our friends, our neighbours, and our acquaintances. And we might even tend to look at the younger generations with amusement as they strut their stuff. They have no concept that they will be 'here' one day.
Glennon Doyle wrote a million-copy best-seller, “Untamed”, the premise of which is to learn to live from ‘within’, and listen to our inner voice that guides our thoughts and behaviour, rather than bowing to societal pressures. This got me thinking that ‘retirement’ and midlife give us the perfect opportunity to live from ‘within’, unencumbered by expectations as we build our second act. We’ve already worn the high heels and suits and endured sleepless nights with sick children and strived to meet expectations that we did not set. We no longer need the highest rating on the annual performance review.
Women or men - aging and ageism exists. The hope is that the latest headlines and discourse about Lisa LaFlamme’s grey hair and research on ageism contribute to change and equality for the aging population, starting now. Meanwhile, as our hair turns grey, as we are ignored in the grocery store, as the clothes are all geared for the younger set, and as our opinions are no longer sourced, we can use this time to do what Erik Ericksen in his Stages of Development theory (Kendra Cherry, ‘Erikson’s Stages of Development’, verywellmind.com) says is an essential task for the final stage of life (65 years and onwards): evaluate our life. I think the majority of us will put new interpretations on old beliefs and values, recognize that whatever role we played was ‘enough’ (whether it was CEO of a company, a stay-at-home mom, or a person with a multitude of struggles and problems but who had the ability to make everyone smile), recognize the strengths that we never knew we had, and come out satisfied (Ego Integrity) as opposed to disgruntled (Despair).
And give a little laugh - we know something they don't know.
(all photos from Wix library)