Senior Toronto blog

August 29, 2023


The young delivery man smiled at me as he carried my groceries up to the porch. “Good morning, dear”, said he. Recognize that language? That’s elderspeak.

Dear. Good girl. Honey. Sweetie. Young lady. Using short, simple sentences. Speaking slowly. Speaking loudly. High-pitched voice. Singsong cadence. Substituting we for you, as in “Are we ready for our bath?” It’s basically baby talk directed at seniors.

You hear elderspeak in nursing homes and hospitals and home care settings where frail elders can be found, but also in places like banks and stores where seniors are functioning perfectly well. So it’s not our behaviour that triggers elderspeak: it’s just the same old, tired stereotype of the feeble, incompetent senior. People who speak this way are treating seniors as children. It’s demeaning and patronizing. For some, this may simply be learned behaviour; they think they are being kind. But for others, it’s a way of controlling and diminishing and setting themselves above us, putting us in our place. Studies show that seniors who are subjected to elderspeak often internalize the negative messages and start to doubt our own abilities. It can also make us less cooperative and more resistant to care.

If someone talks to us in elderspeak, how should we respond? It can be tempting to snap back (“I’m not your dear!”) and sometimes that may be what’s needed. But pause first and think it through. If you’re in a store doing a quick transaction and will probably never see the person again, it might be easiest just to let it go. You don’t have to create a learning experience every time. But if you need to maintain a healthy ongoing relationship with the person, try to find a simple, dignified, nonconfrontational way to set things straight (“I’m really not a young lady and I’m okay with that”, or “It makes me uncomfortable when you call me dear. Could you please just call me Jane?”). You don’t want to annoy the person too much, especially if he’s carrying your eggs.

July 30, 2023

Older women in literature

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, older female characters in novels get a pretty bad rap. Often they’re portrayed as evil, mad, mean or cantankerous. Otherwise they’re needy, doddering old fools. In either case, they’re an annoyance and a burden on their families. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were depicted simply as full-fledged humans, with their quirks and foibles and unresolved issues, but also with maturity, wisdom and emotional strength, living their lives as fully as age allows, and engaged with their community and the larger world? In other words, people like everyone else. Even in these supposedly enlightened, feminist times, they’re still thin on the ground, but I found a few:

  • Lillian Boxfish, in Lillian Boxfish takes a walk, by Kathleen Rooney. A clever, spirited young woman becomes a top-earning advertising writer, working for Macy’s in the 1920s. She's forced to quit when she becomes pregnant. She loses her career, husband and sense of worth. Her style of advertising becomes passé. But in her 80s, she’s still sharp, curious, independent, funny, walking through New York City past sites of old memories on New Year’s Eve 1984.
  • Olive Kitteridge, in Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. Abrasive yet empathetic, retired math teacher Olive Kitteridge flits in and out of thirteen linked stories about life in a fictional small town in Maine. As she ages, she struggles to make sense of the changes in her life. She’s brusque and bossy and hard to like, but she reaches out to people who are suffering. It’s a portrait of life as it is: there is cruelty and loss, but also tenderness and compassion.
  • Sheila Malory, in the Mrs Malory cozy mystery series, by Hazel Holt. Sheila Malory, a widow and part-time literary critic, is an amateur detective living in a quaint English village. Independent and sociable, she gathers information from the many people who trust and confide in her. Realistic discussions of aging among her friends, dignified portraits of older women.
  • Jane Marple, in the Miss Marple mystery series, by Agatha Christie. Elderly single woman living in an English village. She’s shrewd and observant, and has a remarkable understanding of human nature which she claims she has learned by observing village life. She’s often dismissed as a dithering, unassuming old lady, but this enables her to go about unnoticed as she gains access to conversations and crime scenes. She often embarrasses the local police by solving crimes they cannot puzzle out.
  • Emily Pollifax, in the Mrs Pollifax mystery series, by Dorothy Gilman. Mrs Pollifax, a New Jersey widow who is bored with her garden club and hospital volunteer work, joins the CIA. Like Miss Marple, she uses her age to great advantage: no one would suspect a kindly grandmother of being a cold war spy. But she’s more than up to the task: wily, tough, intuitive, very tuned in to other people, calm under stress, willing to face death if need be. Each book is set in a different country, with the politics and conflicts of the cold war era very much in evidence.
  • Charlotte Rainsford, in How it all began, by Penelope Lively. Charlotte, a widow and retired schoolteacher in her 70s, breaks a hip while being mugged in the street. She moves in temporarily with her daughter Rose, thereby knocking several lives out of kilter. Fiercely self-reliant, Charlotte chafes against her enforced dependency, boredom and pain. Sparkling narrative, finely drawn characters, tracing the way an act of fate can ripple through our lives.
  • Hagar Shipley, in The stone angel, by Margaret Laurence. Hagar, 90 years old, stubborn, bitter and in serious decline, nurses her resentments as she reviews her hardscrabble life, rebelling against the strictures of gender and class, prideful and blind to her own faults. She finally manages a reconciliation of sorts with her long-suffering family. Brutally honest.
  • Various characters in Margaret Atwood's later novels: Moral disorder, Old babes in the wood, Stone mattress. Evocative portrayals of widowhood; clever, sly skewering of boomer nostalgia and aging feminists.
  • Various characters in Exit lines, by Joan Barfoot. Four people become friends in a retirement home. Thoughtful, sensitive writing about loss of independence, bereavement, dealing with adult children. Avoids stereotypes; funny in all the right places.
  • Various characters in The dark flood rises, by Margaret Drabble. A loose network of seniors, variously coping or not coping with old age, but still pursuing their lifelong intellectual passions, especially art and literature.

June 30, 2023

The organ recital

When we were teenagers it was acne. In middle age it was menopause. Now in middle old age, it’s everything at once, some of it pretty serious. It’s life-changing and scary, so when we get together with friends, it kind of takes over the conversation. Some of us find it helpful, while others can’t stand it. Here are a few random thoughts on dealing with the organ recital.

Most young people, including our kids, don’t want to hear about our health issues. They hate the idea of getting old and don’t want the gory details. Would we really like to fall into the stereotype of the senior always whining about aches and pains? So I think it’s better to reserve those conversations for our peers. We get it.

That said, everybody has a different set of aches and pains. Don’t assume that what’s happening to your friend is the same thing that’s happening to you. Unless you’re a doctor, don’t give out health advice. If your friend really wants health advice, direct her to some trusted sites. If you think she could only handle one information source, send her to the Mayo Clinic. If you think she might like to have a variety of sources, send her to MedlinePlus. If you think she wants to see original research, send her to PubMed.

How do we manage our lives with all these health issues? I think we have to take two paths at the same time. We keep living our lives as best we can, inventing modifications as we need them. And we have to make contingency plans for the time when the modifications aren’t enough. If there are going to be tough days ahead, it would be a shame to spoil the time we do have fretting about it. Our time is too precious for that now. If we’re scared and it helps to share, then of course do it. But then move the conversation forward to the other parts of our lives, and all the other things we care about.

May 29, 2023

Too old to lead?

When US President Joe Biden, aged 80, announced his reelection bid in April 2023, he met with a barrage of condemnation. Voters and pundits on all sides called him too old to run, claiming to be concerned about his physical health and stamina, and the possibility of cognitive decline. Are their concerns justified? How much does age matter in a political leader?

It’s interesting that age seems to be the only criterion we want to apply to political leaders. Isn’t that strange? Think of the jobs you’ve had, the qualifications you had to painstakingly earn and live up to. Yet for a job as important and powerful as that of running a city, province or country, we require practically no qualifications at all, apart from citizenship and a clean criminal record. We would certainly never choose our doctors and lawyers and accountants this way.

If we wanted to require some basic qualifications for our political leaders, what would they be? Should we expect a minimum level of education, some training or experience in public administration, a basic understanding of how our government works, what a democracy is, what basic rights and obligations exist between the governors and the governed? On that basis, many leaders wouldn’t get through the door. But maybe they don’t need these skills as long as they surround themselves with smart, knowledgeable advisors. In any case, the most important traits in a successful leader seem to be about character: a strong moral sense; support for the common good; lack of bias; willingness to listen and learn, change and adapt; ability to build consensus and rally support; good communication skills; empathy; vision; integrity. There aren’t any objective tests for all those things. But there is no reason to suppose that old leaders would be lacking such traits any more than young ones. These qualities take time to build, so we could even argue that older people would make better leaders.

The problem with requiring minimum standards for political leaders is that it could be said to undermine democracy, as it would deprive most people of the right to contest elections. So if we want to support democracy, we accept the risk of rule by the ignorant, the powermongers and the charlatans. There’s certainly no shortage of those folks, both young and old.

If you’d like to close that democratic loophole, there are plenty of qualifications to choose from. Take your time and think about which ones you would require, and how you would apply them. Just don’t be too quick to play the age card.

April 29, 2023

It's not funny

Every so often, various senior friends send around jokes about aging. Some of them are pretty clever. But I can’t laugh. I appreciate a good joke as much as anyone else, but when it comes to jokes about aging, I just cringe.

What are we supposed to be laughing at? What do jokes about aging target? You’ll notice that they don’t make fun of the serious illnesses of old age, like heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s, or diabetes; they’re not quite that cruel. Instead, they pick on issues like mild memory loss, aches and pains, body weakness and fragility, grey hair, wrinkles, vision and hearing problems: conditions that can cause us to feel shame and humiliation in public, easily identifiable targets, just perfect for bullying. Why do some of us find this funny, even as seniors, when it’s aimed straight at us? Well, we all grew up in an ageist society, we’ve been steeped in it all our lives, so it’s in our bones by now. But as we move through old age, and these conditions start to hit close to home, we can begin to understand ageism for what it is: callous, inhumane bigotry, even when it’s lightened with humour.

The challenges of aging are tough, and we need to have a laugh now and then – but not at the cost of our dignity and self-respect. Surely we can find other things to laugh about.

March 29, 2023

Getting dressed

Old age doesn’t bring many perks, but there’s one I enjoy every morning: getting dressed. I’m retired and home a lot, so I can wear whatever I like. Sweatshirt, jeans, warm socks, sturdy shoes, and I’m good to go. I’ll be warm and comfortable and can move about easily all day. It seems like such a small thing, dressing for comfort, but for women, it’s actually a hard-won perk. Getting dressed didn’t used to be like this.

I remember what it was like getting dressed as a young girl in the fifties. Scratchy crinolines. Very full gathered or pleated skirts that wrinkled when you sat on them. You couldn’t run or climb in those skirts, and risk flashing your underwear. Blouses that buttoned in the back, so you couldn’t put them on yourself. Garter belts! You had to hook your nylons to straps hanging down from the belt, leaving the tops of your legs bare. Not fun when you were walking home from school in February. We didn’t realize we were just in training for the high heels and miniskirts to come.

Males dress for comfort, and females dress for looks. You’d think we were past this by now, but are we? At least little girls can wear pants these days, but otherwise the gender stereotyping is still ferocious. Boys can wear any colour, but girls have to wear pink. On boys’ T-shirts the images are dinosaurs and superheroes, all about action and power. On girls’ T-shirts it’s kittens and bunnies, all about cuteness and passivity. And what’s waiting for them when they grow up? Take a look at the pictures of celebrities from the Oscars. The men are covered from neck to toe, and the women have body parts falling out all over the place. We haven’t come such a long way, baby.