It happened slowly, gradually, until I retired at 71 from two consecutive driven and passionate careers serving children.
There is no looking back, no U-turn allowed, no escaping the complex feelings we live with as we follow this road to its inevitable destination. I have travelled to the far corners of the world and enjoyed every experience, but I wasn’t sure I was going to like this trip.
Perhaps I first felt this disquiet when I celebrated 70, a significant milestone birthday, and the email jokes and birthday cards I received characterized women my age as shrivelled up, bent over, petite figures with sagging breasts and skinny legs, waving their canes over their heads, with comments related to Botox or leaky bladder problems.
Or perhaps it was the first time a 20-something sales clerk called me “Hon” or “Sweetie” or “Dear.”
Then again, it might have been the targeted advertisements suggesting I check out affordable group living residences or local places to purchase a chic walker, and how to secure decent home care or select a good lawyer to prepare my will. And I should take care of this before dementia sets in the weekend after I receive my gold watch for retiring from a job such as CEO of a hospital, senior partner in a law firm or director of education for an Ontario school board!
Systemic stereotypes reinforce negative ideas about aging, and those of us who find ourselves arriving at its front door and being forced to join the party in progress can tell you it doesn’t feel good.
When the idea that older women are over the hill is presented everywhere, we create that reality and become what the culture depicts us to be.
Negative stereotyping of older women impacts how professionals treat us — and how we feel about ourselves — which can lead to isolation, loneliness, depression and unhealthy lifestyles. When the idea that older women are over the hill is presented everywhere, we create that reality and become what the culture depicts us to be.
Women of my generation fought for better education. We fought for the right to choose the number of children we felt ready, willing and able to raise. We fought for equal pay for work of equal value. But, clearly, our fight isn’t finished.
We need to eliminate negative images and words used to characterize older women. We need to tell people we are insulted when they speak to us using baby talk or a high-pitched voice, as if we are children. We need to be sure that younger people know we don’t like to be addressed as “Sweetie” or described as part of a “cute couple.”
We need to change the conversation and acknowledge what is clearly evident: Older women accomplish all kinds of amazing things, including travelling the world by themselves or with a friend, training for and running marathons, teaching English to Chinese students for a summer course, and taking and leading Zumba classes at their local community centres.
We need to dispel the myth that older women are physically unattractive and should not expect romance. We need to challenge derogatory, insulting, mean, rude and sexist humour, language and comments, and instead celebrate older women for their wit, charm and style, and their contributions to creating a better, more equitable world for everyone.
I suggest we no longer refer to older women as “little old ladies,” “old biddies” or “seniors.” I propose a new name that honours our strength, wisdom, energy, value to society and, yes, desirability.
I would like to be referred to as a “classic woman” or “heritage woman,” or something similar that celebrates my life experience and my silver hair, wrinkled brow and laugh lines, and recognizes that I am still attractive and can feel sexy and wanted by my partner.
I never saw it coming. I never expected to get here this fast. But my hope is that the cultural changes needed to address ageism for classic women come rolling down the tracks imminently, so I can ride that train on out.