By Alice Fisher. M.S.W.
Like many women my age, I participated in the feminist consciousness raising movement of the sixties. It was a powerful vehicle for exploring our innermost feelings about being women, mothers, daughters, wives, and our role in society. For many of us it was the first time we confronted the issue of misogyny (or even knew what it meant) and, not the least, got to touch our own misogynist inclinations having grown up in a male dominant society.
Here I am over 40 years later doing the same thing. Only this time, the topic that my consciousness raising group is exploring is ageism and what it means to grow old. A main difference between our aging consciousness raising group and the feminist groups of the past is that the group is made up of both men and women. Aging makes no gender distinction, and we all grew up in this virulent youth culture that says young equals good and old equals…well, let’s say, not so good. We are a 10-person group, aged 60 to 85. We meet every week for 1-1/2 hours. In order to make it easier for the group, we meet in person every other week. On the weeks in between, we connect virtually through our computers. To our surprise, this has proved to work remarkably well. Our hope is that as we confront our own ageist attitudes we will be able to change the way we perceive aging ourselves and hopefully change society’s ageist attitude towards the old and elderly.
Ageism is an interesting prejudice. Aging is the common denominator for everyone who is born. If fortunate, we are all going to get old. We are all going to die. So being judgmental about people just because of their age, or their wrinkles, or their slower pace, is sowing the seeds for our own internalized ageism.
As we progress in our own consciousness raising initiative, we are creating a manual detailing how to start an aging consciousness raising group so that others can benefit from the work we are doing and to guide them in starting their own groups. Our experience is sometimes smooth flowing and other times bumpy. It is our intention to smooth out all the bumps before we pass the information along to others who have an interest in doing this work.
So, what do we talk about in these sessions? Sometimes we have a topic prepared so that members can reflect on it before we meet. Other times the issue that we begin talking about arises organically out of conversation…many times it is a question that someone asks or a situation in which they find themselves and feel that age or ageism is part of the problem. Recently, we spent two entire sessions on the topic of “help”…how we ask for help, how we offer help. Which is better…being independent or interdependent? Most of us were raised to value autonomy. The message was that we should be able to do everything by ourselves. To ask for help was a sign of weakness. As we age, do we still feel that way? What makes it easier for us to accept help? Many of us have experienced push back from our own parents when we determined that they could no longer function on their own.
We talk about the elders with whom we have had relationships and how those relationships shaped our thinking about aging. We share stories. We share our innermost feelings about our own aging. And, we talk about the advantages of being old and the contribution that older adults give to society. Sometimes we are exploring new territory, and sometimes we are looking at relics that are outdated. We have noted the conflation of the aged and the disabled. Does someone’s physical abilities make them either old or young? What about the older adult who has an expansive mind, always curious, always learning? Is she defined by her wrinkles or her mind? We are all guilty of ageism at one time or another.
I’ll end this with a personal story. My husband and I had the opportunity to be with old friends that we had not seen for a very long time. On the way home, our conversation started something like this; “Did you see Kathy? Doesn’t she look great!” “Yeah, but did you see Susan; she is not aging well at all?” “I can’t believe Joe uses a walker to get around. He was such a great athlete.” “But then there’s Dan who looks so young for his age.” In mid-sentence I stopped myself. “Can you believe where we are going with this conversation?” I asked. “What ageists we are.” The first thing we noticed was how young or how old everyone looked. No mention of who accomplished what or overcame obstacles in their lives.
We immediately went for the jugular because we are both in the same consciousness raising group. We were able to catch ourselves and reflect on how automatically we were equating the way our friends looked with how old they are. Why does Dan have to look good for his age? Can’t he just look good! How do we know that Susan is not aging well? Just because she has more wrinkles on the outside has nothing to do with how she feels or who she is on the inside. We just automatically went into our own ageist rant.
Would we have recognized the ageist language we were using if we weren’t part of an ageing consciousness raising group? I doubt it. Finally, from another group member who had previously told us how she detested anyone who offered her a seat on the subway because it made her feel old. After only a couple of sessions, she said, “I actually accepted the offer of a seat on the train today,and I felt quite good about it. I don’t think I would have been so gracious if we had not been discussing these issues.”