‘When did aging become a problem?’ Why this 82-year-old took up the fight against ageism

‘We all have potential,’ says P.E.I.'s Olive Bryanton Nina Dragicevic

We all see the same headlines telling us boomers are retiring, demographics are aging and health care costs are rising. The question inevitably becomes: How do we solve the problem of an aging population in Canada?

First of all, says Olive Bryanton, that’s the wrong question. The 82-year-old activist has been trying to change the conversation — to ask the right questions — for decades.

The documentary Never Too Old follows Bryanton, who lives in Hampshire, P.E.I., through her PhD studies at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). She’s outspoken about her research, activism and purpose.

“Certainly through the news media, through our government, when you read the [headlines], they talk about ‘solving the problem of aging,’” Bryanton says. “So when did aging become a problem? It’s a normal process of life.”

“You read about the burden of older adults or the ‘grey tsunami’ … we’re always talking about the vulnerability of older adults. But in reality, everyone has their strengths and their capacities. So rather than looking at vulnerabilities, why aren’t we looking at their strengths? And how can we build on those strengths?”

Those are the right questions, Bryanton says. And in her eighth decade, she’s still gathering the answers.

Pioneers in aging

Bryanton’s PhD dissertation involved researching 10 women over the age of 85 who live in rural areas of the province — “pioneers in aging” as she calls them, since they’re living past Canada’s life expectancy.

As she says in the documentary: “We’re not caring for all older adults — I mean, less than 10 per cent are using care facilities. So why don’t we hear about the 90 per cent who are out there doing their thing and doing just fine, thank you very much. Why don’t we hear about them?”

Bryanton’s journey to her doctorate, however, is only the most recent instalment of her work on seniors’ issues. Her activism started in the 1980s.

‘Anyone can be an activist’

Bryanton’s background includes researching and authoring a book on housing for a gerontology association, organizing a seniors’ housing conference, working for a seniors’ federation, founding a newspaper, establishing a seniors’ centre in Charlottetown — where she served as president for two years — and helping launch a provincial seniors’ safety program together with the RCMP and P.E.I. government.

In 2000, she started working at the PEI Centre on Health and Aging, and, in the same year, received an honorary degree from UPEI. Nine years after that, she completed her master of education at the university.

People in the community have quipped that she’s in the newspaper more than the Pope. But Bryanton brushes off the idea that she’s a pioneer herself.

“I truly believe that anyone can be an activist,” Bryanton says, “and that anyone can further their education.”

Changing attitudes

Some activists have a pivotal moment in which they realize their calling. For Bryanton, it was when she began to notice the antipathy about aging becoming pervasive — robbing adults of dignity and agency.

“It was a constant bombardment of negativity that really gets to you,” she says. “And you finally say, ‘OK, I am aging, everybody I know is aging, so why are we letting this [negativity] happen?’”

It’s not just younger generations: Bryanton believes these cultural attitudes seep into older adults’ psyches as well.

Seniors start to believe they have no value and nothing to contribute, internalizing the ageist attitudes around them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, she says.

“When you hear that over and over again, you begin to believe it,” Bryanton says. “I think that really limits people’s creativity; it limits their abilities.”

One example she shared with Women Social Activists of Atlantic Canada involved a struggle to fill openings for board members at a seniors’ centre where she worked. Potential candidates said they didn’t feel qualified to take the positions, but Bryanton observed that if they stepped into the role, made decisions and improved the community, they ultimately realized how much they had to offer.

“Older adults themselves should be refuting what is told to us by the media and our current culture,” Bryanton says. “They really need to start believing in what they see in themselves.”

Pushing for change

The activist has a few goals for her life of community work.

“I would love to see ageism eliminated,” Bryanton says. “I’d like to see in any decision-making — whether it be research, or development of programs or services — that older adults always be part of the process. They are the experts in their lives, so why are we not turning to the experts?”

She wants attitudes to evolve, older generations to be respected and knowledge to be gleaned from older people’s experiences, particularly with regard to aging healthily and independently. And she wants each individual to realize they are capable of great things — at any age.

“We all have potential,” Bryanton says. “We just need to foster it a bit.”

Watch Never Too Old.