Carol A. Hand
Recently, I recounted a story to my friend and blog partner, Cheryl Bates, about the challenges of trying to raise awareness when confronting prejudice. One of my entertaining responsibilities when I worked in the field of gerontology for State government was to try to deal with networks that discriminated against older people. I remember speaking at a conference organized to try to raise awareness about the consequences of ageism for elders who needed assistance. I knew it would be a challenge. The professionals in attendance would be angry and resistant to anything I said because they had been forced to attend. I knew if I didn’t succeed somehow, they might become even less helpful to elders.
When faced with that likelihood, as I have often been in my jobs, the only recourse was to let myself become the focal point of anger. So as I faced the audience of over 100 pissed-off service providers, I began by asking them to all introduce themselves briefly by sharing their names, job titles, and chronological age. It worked. A third of the audience refused to share their age and peevishly voiced their reasons. I had my hook and began by asking why we allow so much of our identity to be based on our chronological age. What is it about being older that brings so much fear and insecurity into our lives? Why do we feel the need to search for the fountain of youth, to appear younger than we are, to apply expensive make-up and wrinkle cream and dye our hair?
It was years later that I confronted my own realization that I was an elder. I remember the moment when I suddenly realized that the person looking back at me from the mirror had wrinkles and silvering hair. “Oh my god, I look like my mother!” It’s not that I mind looking old, it’s just that I have learned all too well how elders are treated. I am reminded of a poem I used during this conference and others to try to touch people’s hearts, to encourage them to look beyond external appearances to see the beauty of wisdom reflected in the eyes of many elders.
Photo Credit: Aadi, me, and Ava – 2010
(A poem found among the possessions of an older woman who died in the geriatric ward of a hospital)
What do you see, what do you see?
Are you thinking, when you look at me-
A crabbit old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice,
I do wish you’d try.
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe.
Who, unresisting or not; lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding the long day is fill. Is that what you’re thinking,
Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes,
nurse, you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still!
As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of 10 with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters, who loved one another-
A young girl of 16 with wings on her feet,
Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet,
A bride soon at 20- my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
At 25 now I have young of my own
Who need me to build a secure happy home;
A woman of 30, my young now grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last;
At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone,
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn;
At 50 once more babies play around my knee,
Again we know children, my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
For my young are all rearing young of their own.
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known;
I’m an old woman now and nature is cruel-
‘Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body is crumbled, grace and vigor depart,
There is now a stone where I once had a heart,
But inside this old carcass, a young girl still dwells,
And now and again my battered heart swells,
I remember the joy, I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again.
I think of the years all too few- gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last-
So open your eyes, nurse, open and see,
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer-
I now notice how some self-important people in their 30s and 40s speak more loudly when they address me, and use simpler language, if they acknowledge my presence at all. Yet, like the crabbit old woman, my worth as a human being isn’t based on the recognition of others. My life is still blessed by family and friends, compatriots and students who look more deeply at others to find the beauty and wisdom within themselves and others.
(And if you have the courage to ask me my chronological age, I promise to reply without anger or defensiveness – it’s just a number that that only has the meaning we have been socialized to give it.)