They are We: Understanding Ageism in Canada

In the heart of a buzzing craft fair at a Vancouver seniors’ centre a stylishly dressed and elegantly coiffed woman in her 80s clutched a copy of the May 27, 2010 National Post and cried.

My articling student happened to be volunteering at this seniors’ centre that day, and turned to the woman to enquire if she was all right.

“No” the woman replied and thrust an article deceptively entitled “10 Ways to Make Canada More Elder Friendly”. Interested in all things elder-friendly, she read the article with mounting horror. And then understood the crying.

The article, disguised as a presumably light-hearted take on the aging demographic and systemic changes, was deeply ageist and offensive. She called me. I already knew. I had more than 20 emails on my computer on this particular article alone and many more calls and letters expressing hurt, concern and outrage. But the woman in the seniors’ centre summed it up best – “I spent my whole life as an active member of society. And I still am. And somehow overnight I became useless, embarrassing and a drain on society”. Her beautiful face was ashen with horror and then flamed with fury. Shoulders hunched, she left the building, depressed and hurt.

If only this story was an exception. But is isn’t. Rather, it seems more the rule. Canadian society, like so many other nations, holds deeply embedded ageist attitudes. As the demographic shift takes place, a record number of Canadians are aging – generally positively and well. This shift is going to be most noticeable as by about 2036, fully one quarter of the Canadian population will be over 65 . But who are these seniors? They are us. They are our family. They are our friends, spouses, colleagues, politicians, and decision-makers. They, are simply, we.

Ageism, then, is not really a loathing of the other. It is, oddly and perversely, a self-loathing. I have spent years trying to understand our social preoccupation with youth and the hatred of all things old. And as my 73-year old father who is still actively practising law in Niagara Falls often wryly points out, “Getting old? Well, it sure beats the alternative”.

Perhaps ageism is like a sort of social anorexia.

The anorexic cannot see herself as she truly is in the mirror. She sees ugliness. And she detests it. In many ways, this is how I understand ageism. If the they are we, then hating aging is hating ourselves. Every ageist joke, discriminatory action or vitriolic article in the newspaper is merely an expression of our own social condition. And like anorexia, holding up a mirror and demanding that she see herself as she really is cannot fix it. If requires social change, resources and a fundamental re-understanding of beauty and value.

A colleague of mine at the University of Saskatchewan has his students write down all the words they can think of, when they think about “old”. After years of conducting this exercise, he says it boils down to two stereotypes of age shown on The Simpsons. On one hand you have Grandpa Simpson, who is portrayed as useless, embarrassing, demented, drooling and needing thick glasses and a cane. On the other hand, you have Mr. Burns, who is creepy, grasping, out-of-touch, mean-spirited and hates all children and youth. Frankly, I don’t like either of those choices. And as they are we, I reject both.