Old images of aging are changing in an era when seniors are living; healthier, wealthier and more independently than they ever have before

MARY NEMETH January 10 1994


Old images of aging are changing in an era when seniors are living; healthier, wealthier and more independently than they ever have before

MARY NEMETH January 10 1994




Old images of aging are changing in an era when seniors are living; healthier, wealthier and more independently than they ever have before

In his office across from Parliament Hill hang framed newspaper cartoons spoofing Mitchell Sharp at various points in his long career. Once a high-profile civil servant, a successful businessman and a cabinet minister, and now—for $1 a year—Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s special adviser, the 82-year-old Sharp remembers a time when society’s entire focus was on youth. “People in their 70s and 80s,” he says, “were considered incapable of having a reasonable opinion about current events.” The fact that the Prime Minister has turned to Sharp for assistance—not in spite of his age but because of his seniority—is evidence of a dramatic shift in popular images of aging. “People pay more attention to what I say now than perhaps they should,” laughs Sharp. “I think there is quite a significant change in attitude going on. Somehow, once again, experience counts.”

North Americans, raised on evil old crones like the one in Hansel and Gretel and bombarded by Hollywood images of youthful beauty, have long ignored, even feared, old age. Blanket stereotypes afflicted anyone over 65: sickly, feebleminded, confined to nursing homes, a burden on their children, haggard and bitter—or, at best, cute and childlike. True, many seniors are very ill, some are impoverished, some are physically abused (page 28). And some who live with their grown children require more care than younger families can provide (page 34). But those troubled seniors are in a minority, often at the top end of an aging scale that can last into the 80s, 90s and beyond. “Old age is not all frailty,” notes Neena Chappell, director of the University of Victoria’s Centre on Aging. “Without minimizing the difficulties of those who are really suffering, in truth the majority of seniors are doing very well, thank you.”

Canadian seniors, in fact, are living longer, healthier, wealthier and more independently than ever before. And old stereotypes are under assault. American author Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, inspired modem feminism, has turned to the myths surrounding

the elderly. In her latest book, The Fountain of Age, the 72-year-old Friedan refutes the “image of age as inevitable decline.” She argues that gerontologists concentrate too much “on the victims of the most extreme ravages of senility, the sick, helpless old.” That focus, she writes, may have blinded not only the profession but older people themselves to the possibilities of life after 60. But Friedan is only at the thin edge of a demographic wedge: the number of Canadians over 65 is expected to grow from 3.2 million now to 8.7 million within four decades. The first of the baby boomers—the group that used to distrust anyone over 30—will start turning 65 in the year 2011. That generation, through force of numbers, has dictated trends in everything from hairstyles to consumer spending, and is certain to demand an end to negative stereotypes of aging, as well.

Already, Hollywood seems to sense a shifting wind. Among a spate of recent movies featuring older characters, Billy Crystal was slathered with wrinkle and liver-spot makeup for his role as a fading comic in the 1992 Mr. Saturday Night, and an equally made-up Bette Midler played a past-her-prime siren in the 1991 For the Boys. But Robin Williams said that in his latest movie, Mrs. Doubtfire—after first making him up to look like a haggard old crone—film-makers settled on a more attractive older woman character.

And advertisers now poke fun at the aged only at their peril. In response to public outrage over a recent Doritos tortilla chip commercial—which showed a befuddled old woman getting steamrolled into wet cement— the contrite manufacturer delivered cases of free chips to a food bank. “I I do think some sensitivity is developing,” says Ethel Meade, 74, co-chairman of the Older Women’s Network, a Toronto advocacy group. “Of course, lots of older women are busy and active. They are breaking stereotypes by showing what older women can do.”

Senior men and women volunteer or work part time. They travel to exotic locations and take study vacations at home. A Kingston, Ont.based group called Elderhostel Canada offers courses in subjects ranging from cross-country skiing to watercolor painting. And the Raging Grannies, who caricature aging stereotypes by dressing up in floppy hats and frilly dresses, campaign against everything from nuclear arms

to the GST. Another grandmother, 73-year-old Lenore Wedlake from Halifax, teaches a weekly class in t’ai chi, a Chinese martial art that focuses on relaxation and meditation. “I guess, because of my age, they thought I would be a good role model,” says Wedlake, who maintains that “old” is a concept “perpetuated by younger people.” She adds: “When you get to be older, you just don’t feel that much older inside. I don’t have quite as much energy as I once did. But generally, I’ve been blessed with good health.”

Even as seniors swing into action, however, some people argue that the anti-ageism movement has missed its mark. Tracy Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, just published Old Friends, based on patients in a Massachusetts nursing home. In a recent interview, he argued that the increasingly common images of seniors in tennis shoes implies that the only way to age “successfully” is to be in good health. That, he says, ignores the real problems of the disabled and the weak. “There are people who are very sick,” says Kidder, “who manage against the odds to lead meaningful lives.” Among them, he says, is an arthritic elderly man at the nursing home who insisted on dressing himself, even though it took him IV2 hours each morning. “When it takes IV2 hours,” says Kidder, “the fact that you do it for your own dignity is a kind of routine heroism.”

Of course, physical health does decline with age. According to the University of Victoria’s Chappell, studies have shown that anywhere from 13 to 20 per cent of all seniors endure disabilities severe enough to hamper independent living—the inability to get dressed, go to the bathroom, get around the house—that can be caused by anything from arthritis to a stroke. But health may vary vastly depending on how old a senior is. According to Statistics Canada, 82 per cent of people aged 85 and over report some level of disability, compared with only 37 per cent of those aged 65 to 74. For most peo-

pie, says Chappell, deteriorating health “tends to be gradual and things we can cope with.”

Nils Hoas is among the golden oldies. A 66-year-old retired railway worker, he plays golf and slow-pitch baseball in the summer.

And he was curling recently at the Peace Arch Curling Club in White Rock, B.C., at a bonspiel for those aged 60 and over. Hoas argues that inactivity can be demoralizing. When many of his coworkers retired, he says, “they just stopped, they didn’t do anything—they just sort of vegetated and seemed to give up on life.”

Elsie McKenzie skipped the masters bonspiel—she travelled about 100 km from Vancouver to Chilliwack for an over-80s tournament instead. McKenzie talks gleefully of the time when, as a 67-year-old, she and three friends won a bonspiel in Scotland— even beating a squad of fit young Canadian airmen visiting from a base in Germany. That was in 1969. Now 91, McKenzie still curls at least once a week. “I think I would have been dead years ago,” she says, “if I hadn’t been curling.”

As it happens, there has been some debate over whether seniors, as a group, are healthier than ever. In the past century, the life expectancy of Canadians has approximately doubled to 73 years for men, 80 for women. But some researchers say that as average life span continues to grow, healthy life does not. Even as heart diseases decrease, the argument goes, some cancers are increasing. But Statistics Canada senior analyst Russell Wilkins found that in 1986 Canadians’ average life span was 76.4 years, up 7.8 years from 1951. Wilkins calculated that 2.8 of those extra years were lived with some disability. But most of the increase— five of the extra eight years of life—was disability-free.

When life expectancy was shorter, the few people who did live into their senior years had likely lost their spouses. Only in this century, writes Andrew Greeley, 65, an American priest and sociologist, have large numbers of men and women “survived into the ‘senior’ category in good health and with sexual desire still very much alive.” But attitudes lag behind. Greeley published a study last year to counter perceptions that passionate love is non-existent among seniors. He found that about 37 per cent of married men and women over 60 have sex at least once a week; 20 per cent of those in their 60s report making love outdoors. Such data, he writes, is ignored amid “the snide snicker of the prevailing culture.”

AÍ Bennett, a retired Toronto accountant, knows firsthand about late-blooming love. A widower, he met his match through an introduction agency. “I was just looking for companionship,” says Bennett,

66. “But then the lights went on and the whistles blew.” He and Margaret, a 59-year-old widow, plan to marry next year. “There’s a whole new world in front of us,” he says, adding that their families—seven children and eight grandchildren between them—have been supportive. “But I think some children throw roadblocks,” he says. “They think someone else will get the inheritance, or they think daddy or mommy shouldn’t be doing these things.”

As for sex, Bennett allows that some seniors may not require it. “But it shouldn’t be taken for granted that because you’re 65, you’re dead from the waist down.” While sex “may not be as frequent in many cases,” he says, “it is far more satisfying. We are who we are, we’re not trying to demonstrate that we are Michelle Pfeiffer or whoever.”

Grey may not only be beautiful—it can be bountiful. According to Andrew Wister, associate professor of gerontology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., “wealth and health work together.” Health-promotion programs, which push nutrition and more vigorous exercise, seem to reach higher-educated, and usually wealthier, people. The good news is that the overall financial picture for seniors is also improving. Unattached senior women are the poorest group. According to the National Advisory Council on Aging, 38 per cent of them were below the low-income cutoff, or poverty line, in 1990, but that was a marked improvement over 1980, when 60 per cent were below the poverty line. Only 26 per cent of unattached senior men were in that category in 1990, compared with 53 per cent in 1980. And among senior couples, only 4 per cent, down from 13 per cent, were that poor.

Improved financial circumstances have helped ever greater numbers of seniors live independently. StatsCan reports that even among seniors aged 75 and over, 59 per cent of women and 75 per cent of men were either living with a spouse or alone in 1991—an increase of more than 10 percentage points in the past two decades.

Independent seniors are making important contributions. A renowned trapper in the Yukon, 77-year-old Alex Van Bibber was awarded the Order of Canada last year for teaching younger generations about the wilderness. Among other skills, he now teaches other trappers about the proper care of fur and about the new quick-kill traps favored by animalrights activists. At the same time, the Yukon’s native elders—once a significant force in maintaining native culture—are getting more involved again in guiding their communities. “The elders can see what our young § people have lost, there are so many problems with identity, self-esteem,” J. says Pearl Keenan, 73, a Tlingit elder living in Whitehorse. “They are Q pulling us off our rocking chairs and crying for help.” Last fall, she says, elders representing each of the 14 Yukon First Nations held their second annual conference, passing recommendations on alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, education, language and culture.

Elsewhere, as well, seniors are doing good works. Blake Caldwell, a pastor at the Moncton Wesleyan Church in New Brunswick, argues that they have not only a right, but a responsibility, to grow spiritually. “It’s not enough to get over the line, to say, ‘I’ve become a Christian, I’ve arrived,’ ” says Caldwell, who runs the church’s Golden Years Fellowship. As many as 100 seniors participate in the interdenominational program each week, doing Bible study, babysitting or visiting other seniors in nursing homes. “We’re trying,” adds Caldwell, “to defeat that rocking-chair mentality that it’s time for me to sit back and let the younger people do things.” Not that there is anything wrong with rocking chairs. But as a symbol of the lifestyles of all Canadians over the age of 65, they seem increasingly outdated.





With WARREN CARAGATA in Ottawa, CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver, JOHN DeMONT in Halifax and CHUCK TOBIN in Whitehorse