Age is on many minds at the moment; it’s everywhere we look. Anne Mayer Bird, co-author of Good Grief, discusses age and ageism in life today compared to a year ago.
AGE AND AGEISM
I just got home from my second Covid vaccine injection. The very young nurse administering the jab remarked in passing, “You are all roughly the same age but so very different.” Looking around it was easy to see what she meant; we octogenarians are as diverse as any other demographic, if not more so. You wouldn’t know this from attitudes expressed towards my age group during the extended and extensive coronavirus pandemic.
Not that those attitudes are consistent. Currently we “oldies” are at the top of the list for protection, caution and care. And, as an expat American, I am still enjoying a bit of an afterglow at the inauguration of Joe Biden, at 78 tasked with the biggest and most urgent job in politics.
This feels like quite a turnaround from last year, when our generations were written off. We were the bodies not even being counted in care homes. We were cluttering and littering up overstretched hospitals. The authorities and the media spoke of the mounting death tolls as if the age of the dead, or their underlying conditions, meant their lives had less value. There seemed little understanding that the dead were people’s parents and grandparents and had laid the groundwork for more modern times. That the dead were people who had paid taxes, perhaps served in the armed forces during WW2 and subsequent wars, invented, nursed, taught and generally contributed to society. That the dead were individuals. Having lost my beloved husband John just before the pandemic, only to see my son-in-law Andy die 41 days later, probably one of the earliest victims of Covid in the UK, I have been keenly aware as the death toll of Covid spirals upwards that every single death, no matter the age or condition of the deceased, is a tragedy.
The about turn that now sees my generation top of the list for not only vaccine jabs but care and concern and compassion is welcome. But we are still consigned to an amorphous category called “The Elderly.”
I will now reveal that I recently turned 87, so definitely qualify as old. I can spot the ravages of time but I am totally fit physically and mentally and keep as physically active as I am able. I have never been defined by my age. I have always been Anne, whether as a young bride and mother, or developing my career as an arts publicist, or an older friend to many and mentor to some, or a grandmother. I am not saying I never changed as you cannot live through nearly 90 years of cataclysmic events and changes without being changed.
Nor am I ignoring the factors most likely to determine how any of us age: genes, economic status, good health care and cultural attitudes. The first two are a matter of luck, although the second, like the last two, is susceptible to political will. This is a wealthy country, yet children born in the most deprived areas can look forward to a healthy life expectancy 19 years shorter than their counterparts in the wealthiest parts of the UK.
Expectations of age also play a big role. You don’t need to look far to find a newspaper columnist chiding some prominent person or other for supposedly age-inappropriate behaviour. It’s hard not to think yourself old in response. My mother, Ruth, came home one day with a new pair of reading glasses which I knew she did not need. When I questioned her, she said she had got them because she was now over 40 and everybody that age needs glasses. Quite apart from the fact that Ruth lied about her age all her life and was probably nearer 50 than 40, she did not need glasses and could still see perfectly well.
This event obviously shaped my own thinking as I have always been averse to any sort of grouping based on age. I did not retire, for instance, but simply took up a freelance career when I left my final full-time job at the age of 65. I was more than able to do the work and more experienced than most, so why not. This meant that my friendship base has continued to expand to include those still working and stuck into life.
I have been fortunate in all of the ways listed above. I have good genes, have never experienced real hardship, am grateful every day for the fantastic NHS and, as an American, have never been very good at conforming to the expectations of British society. However, I also work hard to maintain my fitness. I run up and down my 15 stairs 32 times every day (the equivalent of an 18-storey building) and realise the brain is also a muscle which needs exercise. I do have senior moments these days but fight to overcome them rather than relaxing into them. Inches of make-up and other artifices are not for me. Youthful is inside out, not the other way round. Youthful is when you not only think but know that your younger friends do not find you boring, but on the contrary ring up when they want a frank, no holds barred chat.
So back to my original theme. What was done to older people when coronavirus descended was if not to demonise them, then to group them as those “not wanted on this voyage.” These attitudes show through in discussion of the new strains of Covid, which we are now battling rather unsuccessfully. A quarter of Covid admissions to hospital are now among the under-55s. I heard this cited on the news recently as a reason, finally, to take this virus seriously.
When I took my solitary walks in those early lockdown days I felt truly invisible as runners, walkers and even cyclists forced me off the pavement. They truly could not seem to see me, conditioned partially by the anti-age rhetoric they were hearing. When I politely asked an aggressive fellow shopper in my corner shop (pushing me literally to check out faster) if he would socially distance, he demanded my age and then said “why don’t you hurry up and die?” I could see he thought my life worthless, which was somehow more shocking than his very bad behaviour.
At the time, I was writing my first book and starting a whole new career. I was going through the process of registering for an overseas vote so I could back Biden for President and the groundbreaking Kamala Harris for Vice President. I remain active economically, politically and, within the confines of lockdown, socially.
So how can I conclude other than to say, “hey, I am a person. My name is Anne. I have lived through a lot and remained engaged with life and all its many possibilities. Unless I live to be the oldest person in the world, my age will never have been my defining feature. Treat that and me with respect. Thanks.”
Anne Mayer Bird’s new book, ‘Good Grief: Embracing Life at a Time of Death’, co-written with her daughter Catherine Mayer, is out now. It’s available to buy from your local bookshop, bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon.