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October 7, 2020

Can anybody be ageist?

Can anybody be ageist?
Can you be ageist if you are an older person?

I don’t see why not; we all have prejudices and bias, unconscious or not. These have all influenced our lives. Living in an ageist society it can be easy to take some assumptions for granted and to internalise them. “Old people are grumpy”, we say, “no one wants to be old”. “Old people don’t know about technology”; there are so many ways that older people are lumped together.

I want to focus on an unexpected outcome of the increasing life expectancy. I am 64, officially in the older people’s group, and so is my mother who is nearly 87. The realisation of this has come upon me suddenly, perhaps when I retired from full time work, now my Mam and I are seen as one group, the ‘over 60s’.

I shouldn’t be surprised (although it’s not easy to find this information.) Some figures estimate that 40%-44% of people will have a parent alive by the time they reach 60. And some 20% of people aged between 50-64 are carers to an older family member. (Facts About Carers, Carers UK, 2019)

My story, and that of my mother’s, vividly illustrates the differences between the two generations that cover the 60 plus group. What a different experience we have had of life! Me: born in the 1950s, a baby boomer, the chance to go to grammar school and university and to do paid work most of my adult life while bringing up two children. She: born in the 1930’s a child during the Second World War, never got her 11 plus because she was ill on the day of the exam and her father didn’t think it was important for girls to be educated. She left school at 15 and didn’t do any paid work after getting married, brought up a family and supported my father in his career.

Yet we do have lots in common: we are both mothers, we mostly agree on politics and even about our faith, but that really isn’t because we are both over 60! That goes to show that chronological age is not as important as we like to think.

She is living independently in the same house she has lived in for 55 years, savvy with the internet, does her own banking online and Facetimes with her granddaughter (my daughter) and great grandchildren. She isn’t as physically strong as she was and she is partially sighted, so life has some challenges now. She lives a hundred miles away from me so even in normal times I wouldn’t see her on a daily basis and because of Covid 19 I’ve only seen her twice since March, instead of once a fortnight.

There is a massive temptation to tell her what to do and to insist on certain behaviours after all I want her to be safe.

You must wear your care ring”, “Don’t go out on your own”, “you should stop smoking”. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you joined the group down at the library?” “Have you sorted out your flu vaccine?

When does being caring turn into bullying?
When do well meaning suggestions turn into preventing someone from taking the risks that they choose?

We can laugh it off it’s not that serious. But surely I should be treating her the way I want to be treated: as an individual, respected, able to have choices, autonomy and to take risks! She’s her own person and I shouldn’t be asking her to do things to make me feel better.

Of course all this is in the context of our life long relationship (well, all of my life!) and you may say that’s not ageism, that’s just how our relationship plays out. It is natural to want to keep the people we love safe and to show we care for them, but maybe the all-pervasive ageism that surrounds is spilling over into our personal lives and back out again.

If we can’t get it right at home, how we can expect to get it right out in the world?

Carol Burns