Getting Old

Candace, 01 August 2005, No comments
Categories: Aging, Feminism, Feminist Theory, Sexism, Women's Studies

Aging, Disability, and Illness. It’s frustrating to me that these topics constantly get lumped in together. I feel that even though there are some common concerns between the three, the issues of aging are significantly different than the issues of illness and you could say the same for disability.

The issues of aging are complex and even though ageism is prominent in our society it is hardly discussed. Women begin fearing old age very young. I know my daughter (age 11) does.

Institutional decisions like this have not considered the needs of women (but when has this ever been a priority?) A middle/upper class woman who was able to save money will have a much easier time aging in good health (the determinants of health here being wholistic). A woman who barely scraped by her whole life will be devestated at the time of forced retirement. Many needs of seniors are not covered by Candadian medical insurance: dental needs for example, medications, eyes, etc.

And the nuclear family model has disentegrated any support network that may have existed to allow families to care for their own seniors. This family model leaves no time for caring for an elderly person in the home. Now, the people who can afford retirement/nursing home care stand the best chance of living with bodily integrity. Without the financial resources to purchase this type of care an individual becomes/feels like a burden to her family.

Our society does not value the thoughts and experiences of the elderly. I found an amazing site this morning: The Ageless Project which provides links to the sites of the oldest bloggers on the web. Technology offers an amazing opportunity for people who historically have been without voice to get a message out and to be heard. I subscribe to “My Mom’s Blog” which is written by Millie born 8/18/25, possibly the oldest blogger on the web. I love blogs – and think they’re a fabulous medium for women – (while I’m on it I’ll go off-topic a bit and mention this past weekend’s amazing and full of potential for the future conference: BlogHer which was specifically for and about women bloggers).

Technology in general has opened doors for seniors and people with disabilities. For those who could afford it (always the catch with technology) there are assistive devices that can lengthen life when desired (desired by someone, unfortunately not always the individual themself), make life more comfortable, make life more accessible, and help provide more independence. I’m thinking of electric wheelchairs, magnifying lamps, extension arms, medical alarms, chairs with built-in lifts, stairway lifts, vehicle hand controls, touch screens, voice activator controls, external voice boxes, and on and on. But for someone who does not have personal resources to purchase these things the paperwork and waiting lists are long and longer to access them through government funds if that is even an option.

Women and Aging is a serious issue, one to me that is too large to mix in like this. We haven’t even gotten to women’s issues of sexuality as an older person. It is more and more common to hear of a marriage ending followed weeks/months/years by the woman has a relationship with another woman. Or the fact that women’s sexual interest peaks later than a man’s – often once she reaches menopause – because the fear of unwanted pregnancy is gone. Anne Fausto-Sterling touches on this in her article “Menopause: The Calm Before the Storm” (in Feminist Theory and the Body, Eds. Price and Shildrick, p. 176) with her comment about how this is contrary to the “long standing belief that women’s lives and emotions are driven in greater part by their reproductive systems.” Apparently women are not as focused on childbearing as was thought. Although I’d like to know how many of this sample had children and whether women experienced infertility or chose not to have children were shown to answer this question differently. We don’t hear about how this occurs often at the same age as men’s sexual health is declining. What we hear about is women who are accused of looking for younger (and healthier) partners as if this were a bad thing.

There are lots of stories about aging+cancer/illness (Judith Hooper’s “Beauty Tips” for example in Minding the Body, Ed. Patricia Foster, p. 108) but I’d like to see something that shows the flip side of aging – the point in the lecture is that we associate aging with negativity. Who will show the truth about aging where it is something positive? If all we see and hear are the negative experiences – while these are valuable and help to show where change in the system is necessary – where do we get the models for growing old in a new/different/positive way? Where are the Nomy Lamm’s (here or here) of the older generations in their purple clothes and red hats ?

Fausto-Sterling’s article goes a long way to showing how older women have come to be devalued: being seen as castrates (170), belonging to the world of “other” as intersexed (169). She shows the negative imagery associated with aging: constipation, rheumatism, arthritis, and many other aches and pains, from annoying to debilitating.

I like how she points out the interlsecting relationship between physical and emotional health (173). I have read suggestions elsewhere that often the only attention an older person can get is for their health problems. But which comes first? The health problem or the social isolation that leads to trying to obtain and maintain interaction in whatever way possible? My grandfather loved going to the doctor in a twisted sort of way – he got to interact with the nursing staff at the office, and got to visit with whomever might be in the waiting area. Although he hated the intervention and the subordination by the doctor for him it was a morning out of the house. I’m sure this experience applies to many many women as well.

What I didn’t realize and what Fausto-Sterling doesn’t include in her article is that peri-menopause can last for years . A woman can experience many years of intermittent periods that may or may not be fertile cycles. A missed period can bring anxiety over whether it is another sign of menopause or a pregnancy. As I hear more personal experiences of women going through this I hear an even stronger cry about the need for woman-friendly birth control. From the reading I had done previously, and I admit I had never really thought about it, I figured that at some point periods just Stop. And then they’re gone and that’s menopause. I didn’t realize the rollercoaster women go through. I thought more of menarche where all of a sudden *poof* there’s your period. I’ve learned since that menopause is a much more fluid experience where a monthly ritual just sort of fades away until you don’t remember the last time you bled.

Fausto-Sterling is right that we need global research (and money) to learn more about menopause (176). And although I realize that meno- comes from the Greek for month, I think it sounds an awful lot like men-o-pause. I’d sure like to find some other word to use here instead. Anyone heard of any?


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