It’s time to face the fact that we really don’t like older people.
Yes, we have respectful phrases such as “senior citizens,” “elders” or “wise old women.” Before you assemble an assassination squad, I know we love and are devoted to our aging parents and grandparents. But as Dylan Thomas wrote about his elderly aunts who were “not wanted in the kitchen, or anywhere else for that matter,” we seem to be developing attitudes along those lines.
How can I make such an outrageous statement? Take a look at some of the reports we’re regularly exposed to in the media and elsewhere. Aging boomers – also known as the “grey tsunami” or the “ticking time bombs” – are seen as signs of the coming gloom and doom. We’re seduced into feeling that longevity – which simply means we live longer thanks to advances in biological and medical sciences – is a looming threat, poised to reduce our system of social welfare, including medicare – our whole economy, in fact – to penury.
The irony is that, while we love our parents and grandparents as individuals, we don’t much like older people collectively. How else are we to explain what’s referred to as “apocalyptic demography,” meaning that aging populations threaten our very way of life. Also difficult to explain are language references such as “greedy geezers,” “dependent elderly” or “economic burdens.” Such references hardly suggest an abiding affection for older people.
I recently saw the re-emergence of that negative phrase “dependency ratios.” This suggests that the growing number of aging people are dependent on younger ones. It’s a crude measurement dividing the number of those under 65 by the number over 65 . Yes, Canadian women now live to be 83 and men 77, with the gap narrowing somewhat. We are told and retold that, by 2031, a quarter of the population will be over 65, and it’s all discussed in the manner of an approaching disaster. It’s simply irrational to assume that all persons over 65 are sick or dependent on those under 65.
I don’t think such crises perspectives are warranted. As presented by popular culture, a number of issues regarding aging populations are virtually ignored:
Older people contribute to the economy. They are the largest collectivity of Canadian volunteers; they provide for their older adult children as necessary, especially in times of recession and unemployment. Grandparents give generously in time and money to their grandkids for sports and education fees, as unpaid caregivers of grandchildren and older aging relatives. They give liberally to charities.
Older people are generally healthier, living vigorous, productive lives.
Older people pay taxes like everyone else on their income, pensions, annuities and other revenue sources. The longer they live, the longer they pay.
Aging people do acquire chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes etc. Medical advances allow them to live satisfactory lives. There’s also the concept of “the compression of morbidity,” meaning that older people live longer as healthier persons until the last six months of life when medical expenses rise accordingly, mostly to those over 80.
Yes, older people may mean more medical expenditure. But a recent University of British Columbia study found that, with respect to demographic change and health care, it would increase spending by 1 per cent or less per year, projected to 2036. Even the outgoing president of the Canadian Medical Association was cited as saying he’d been struck “by the lack of leadership, co-ordinated management, accountability and responsibility and needless waste.” So blaming older people for the projected unsustainability of medicare is scapegoating them, and is ageism, pure and simple.
It’s been conservatively estimated that the time, energy and money that older Canadians contribute to the economy may reach $5-billion annually. And that our public services would have to be substantially enlarged without their contributions.
It’s past time to stop painting pictures of older Canadians as draining our economy and start reflecting the positive realities of their lives.
Lillian Zimmerman is a gerontologist, author and octogenarian. A long-time associate of the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University, she is the author of Bag Lady or Powerhouse? The opinions expressed are her own.