Sunday October 15, 2017

Stop dehumanizing old people by using the phrase "grey tsunami"

Andrea Charise says describing Canada's demographic shift with a term that connotes terror and destruction can have powerful, even tragic, consequences for the elderly.

Andrea Charise says describing Canada's demographic shift with a term that connotes terror and destruction can have powerful, even tragic, consequences for the elderly. (Shutterstock)

Listen 24:35

We have been warned, for years, of a so-called "grey tsunami" that is about to crash into our society. 

As lifespans lengthen and birthrates drop, the percentage of Canadians over the age of 65 is growing rapidly. 

This represents a challenge for hospitals, nursing homes and families. And it comes with significant costs. 

Describing this demographic shift as a "grey tsunami" — with its terrifying image of a monstrous wave poised to break over our heads — is striking and urgent. 

That's why we in the media use the term so often. 

Elderly couple with cane

The rapid growth in Canada's aging population has some concerned about rising health care costs. (David Donnelly/CBC)

But Andrea Charise, a professor at the University of Toronto, says the tsunami metaphor can have powerful — and sometimes tragic — consequences for the lives of elderly people.

She believes it is emblematic of a larger problem: dehumanizing attitudes are built into the words we use to talk about aging.

As the founder of Canada's first undergraduate program in Health Humanities, she is using literature and the arts to encourage her students — many of whom want to become doctors — to imagine a different story about what it means to grow old.

Andrea Charise

Andrea Charise, a professor at the University of Toronto and founder of Canada's first undergraduate program in Health Humanities. (Jennifer Rowsom)

Andrea Charise has a PhD in English literature. For more than15 years, she worked as a medical researcher in the fields of geriatrics and clinical epidemiology. Her research on narratives about aging won her the prestigious 2014 Polanyi Prize for Literature. She teaches a class called "Aging and the Arts" at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.