This week I was invited to talk about ageism and share with a global audience. It was a moment worth meeting. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on my internalised ageism, how it started and how I am finding a way to keep it in check.
For decades I was often the youngest person in the room, sometimes the only woman … and then one day I noticed, as if by osmosis, I had somehow morphed into being the oldest. Like many women my working life was interrupted by children and child rearing and then a few weeks before turning fifty I began what I thought was going to be a sprint caring for a dying husband, however became a marathon and at almost a decade it ended and I deemed it an ultra marathon. I stepped away from formal leadership, or as one colleague, in what I considered ungracious, announced to the world – oh yes, you faded away from view. While this set of circumstances were not particularly age related, by the time I felt I was back in some meaningful way to the workforce, I was eligible for a Seniors Card.
What had happened? Many people may not recognise what I felt had happened – I had made myself invisible. I didn’t want any attention drawn to myself, I was becoming smaller, I was reducing the space I was taking up in the world, almost apologising for being here, feeling like I was a nuisance asking for help and not quite knowing if I did ask for help whether it would be seen as an act of someone feeble or helpless. I felt like I was disappearing and a disappearance linked to changes associated with growing older, no children at home, being widowed.
Conspiracy theories, lies and fake news about ageing had seeped in. My social feeds had incontinence pad messages, retirement home real estate ads and sudoku puzzles to stave off memory loss. I was enabling my own evaporation. It was not good! While these feelings may not have been visible on the outside, I was certainly feeling it on the inside. I had already been subject to significant gas lighting over a long period of time, and perhaps those foundations provided fertile soil for internalised ageism to take root?
As I headed into my 60th birthday, I started to look around me and see how others were approaching this time of life. I fell in love with 2 ideas – one was Jane Fonda calling the period beyond 60 as Act 3 and the second was from Brazilian researcher, Alexandre Kalache – who talks about the gift of all these extra years for our generation and what we might do to cherish them and use them to transform the future. I had been fortunate enough to have had a day hanging out with Prof Kalache while he was in Adelaide on a Thinkers-in-Residence program and he was providing content to develop a series of short videos as part of a community statewide consultation on ageing I was involved in. Amnesia had set in, I hadn’t thought about his work and its own meaning in my life until I took those moments to reflect on arriving at a new decade.
I checked myself on what biases I was holding and where they were being reinforced around me. I took stock. I stopped myself in my tracks and got back to the core of myself, which I think is ageless.
I am now actively moving into these years mindfully embracing eldership – as someone who brings a harvest of wisdom, someone who knows what it means to walk into fires and cyclically rise from flames like a phoenix, and someone who embraces her Celtic heritage of the crone – the third woman of the trinity, matching maiden and mother, now as crone venerated for her experience; where wit is another word for wisdom and hag is for holy. I want to recover these words and reclaim them for our times and for this time in my life. I want to meet these moments with wit, wisdom and holiness and deep gratitude for being able to keep contributing to the future, through my actions each day.
We are all midwifing the future and I am glad to have stepped back from the kerb of palliative care in the present. Those wonderful students and their friends and allies marching for climate justice on Friday inspire and encourage me. This is no time to be fading away.