'Fear ageism, not aging': How an ageist society is failing its elders

IDEAS producer Mary Lynk explores what is the purpose of a long life? Traditional cultures often place older people at the top of social hierarchy, but in modern Western societies there's been a profound loss of meaning and vital social roles for older adults. What happened? And what role can we reimagine for older people now?

‘If we don't pay attention now, we'll never pay attention,’ urges cultural critic

In Canada, 81 per cent of all COVID deaths occurred in long-term care. Age critic and theorist Margaret Morganroth Gullette calls what happened 'eldercide.' (Andrew Lee/CBC)

*Originally published on April 7, 2021.

Despite our denial, we are all old people in training. And to become old often means to become 'the other' in Western society. It's a reality that experts and senior advocates can attest to.

For the most part ageism continues to be a socially acceptable prejudice to the point of being murderous, according to Margaret Morganroth Gullette, an American scholar in age studies.

"As we age, we are seen as less human," she says. 

A profound lesson to emerge from the COVID pandemic is how older members of our society are treated. Gullette calls the high number of deaths from the virus in long-term care: 'eldercide.'

"The problem is we don't value old age. COVID made ageism far worse as we saw people in nursing homes dying because their lives did not matter enough. Many people think that was incompetence, true — but ageism explains it better."

Gullette is about to turn 80 herself. The cultural critic says COVID has brought to light that we should "fear ageism, not aging."

"We've been hit over the head with eldercide and other kinds of growing ageism. And if we don't pay attention now, we'll never pay attention."

About 81 per cent of Canada's reported COVID-19 deaths occurred in long-term care — by far the highest proportion of OECD countries, where the average was 38 per cent. 

"Those people had many years of life to live. Those were premature deaths and unnatural deaths and could have been prevented," Gullette says. 

Geriatrician Louise Aronson adds, "We put 'loved ones' in [nursing homes], underfund them as a society, and hope never to need one ourselves."

From the first person narrative to the third

Fear of aging stems from entering what British sociologist Paul Higgs calls: "The Fourth Age"— a stage that embodies the more feared and marginalized aspects of old age. It's the period of life where a person is advanced in years and frail, or cognitively impaired and dependent on others. 

People in the fourth age are often sent to the edges of society where they become invisible — 'the other' — with little agency, he says.

'This divorce from our current self to our future self... distances us from the biological and social diminishment of old age. Such actions are essentially human,' says American geriatrician Louise Aronson. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"What happens for those people being positioned by the 'fourth age' is that they move into a third person narrative. 'He needs. He is. We will decide. He'll like that.' And this is one of the things that comes back to the idea of agency that frightens many people," explains Higgs.

"One of the jokes at the moment is 'be nice to your kids because they'll choose your nursing home.' You know, it's a joke, but it kind of like suggests the actual shift that occurs."

Higgs says these days we tend to judge the worth of people based on what they have to contribute to society.

 "And one of the things that happens with people who are frail, who are cognitively impaired is the fact that they, in some senses, are deemed not to be full members of society," says Higgs.

"It's not saying that the answer to this is simple, but if you go back into the premodern era, there was in Europe an understanding that you looked after people because that was a good thing to do. You actually saw it as a work of grace rather than necessarily something that was operating because of a lack of good governance."

Shifting old age perception

"Old age remains a season in search of its purposes," writes American aging scholar Tom Cole. 

"In the West, over a long period of time, our culture has moved from ways of thinking about aging, that are cosmic, that are moral, that aging fits into the nature of things and we ought to accept that," says Cole.

Japan is ahead of the West in terms of a rising older population. In 2014 Japan became a super-aged society where 20 percent of the population was over 65. In Canada, this is expected to happen by 2026. 

"About 20 years ago, when the elderly population reached 22 million, that is about 18 percent of the population, Japan started to consciously and formally revise the perception of an image of older people," says Japanese American sociologist and author Akiko Hashimoto.

The government began to focus on reforming national consciousness, working toward making a proactive shift in how the elderly were perceived —  from a special class of people whose abilities were declining to a class of people who are active, healthy and financially secure like any other age group. 

Elderly people work out at a temple in Tokyo, Sept. 21, 2015, to celebrate Japan's Respect for the Aged Day. According to 2018 data released by Japan's government, there are 35.88 million citizens aged 65 or older in the country — the world's oldest population. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2000, Japan introduced long-term care insurance to make sure older people can afford proper health care. Citizens start paying into it when they are 40 and can access it when they are 65. Seniors contribute a 10 percent co-pay, and the government picks up the rest.

As multigenerational households are declining significantly in Japan with older people living more and more on their own, Hashimoto says it's important that older people are no longer seen as 'the other.'

"If we can buy into a sense that ultimately the way in which we integrate all the people in our society and they integrate us, we'll benefit — all of us. I think that would be a good direction for us to move forward to."

Guests in this episode:

Olive Senior is a Jamaican-Canadian writer and Poet Laureate of Jamaica. Her latest book is Pandemic Poems:First Wave.

Thomas R. Cole is a writer, historian, filmmaker and gerontologist. He is currently the McGover Chair in Medical Humanities and Director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. His most recent book is  Old Man Country: My Search For Meaning Among the Elders.

Paul Higgs is a professor of the Sociology of Aging at UCL and editor of the journal Social Theory and Health. He has co-authored six books on various research topics around aging with Dr Chris Gilleard, including Rethinking Old Age: Theorising the Fourth Age.

Louise Aronson is an American geriatrician, writer and professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. She is the author of Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life. 

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, is a cultural critic who calls herself an age critic and theorist. She is the author of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People.

Samir Sinha is the director of Geriatrics of Sinai Health System and University Health Network. He is also the Chair in Geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital and associate professor at the University of Toronto and assistant professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

Darlene Metzler is a seniors advocate and daughter of Gerald Jackson, who died after contracted COVID at Northwood Manor, in Halifax.

Barney Wilson is a Tia-o-qui-aht Elder and retired social worker. For eight years, Williams travelled across Canada as a member of the Indian Residential School Survivors Committee. He is also the Elder in Residence at Vancouver Island University's Nanaimo campus.

Stanley Lynk is a 94-year-old optimist and father of IDEAS producer Mary Lynk.

This episode is part of our series on the idea of the Common Good — the eternal search for humankind: what does it mean to live together in society, and how might we best share the world we live in? Find more Common Good episodes here.

* This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.

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