When Age Matters 101

by | June 22, 2011
filed under Can-Con

Gerald Hodge is Jarrah’s Dad, and a former director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University, where he is now a Professor Emeritus. His most recent book is The Geography of Aging: Preparing Communities for the Surge in Seniors. He lives on Hornby Island, BC. Fun fact: he has the exact same birth date as Leonard Nimoy!

Have you noticed when faced with filling out surveys that the personal questions about age, income, and gender are usually at or near the end? Survey designers believe  ̶  I know because I was once one  ̶  that these can be touchy questions for some people and it’s better to wait to ask them after the real meat of the survey has been completed; after you’re softened up, so to speak.

Be that as it may, today’s designers need to sharpen up about these questions  ̶  especially gender and age  ̶   for all is not as it appears. So, I was surprised and pleased to find in a survey from TheTyee.ca which recently crossed my screen that the gender question offered the following choices:

a.    Male            ____
b.    Female        ____
c.    Trans/other        ____

However, the following question, about age, showed no similar sensitivity regarding older people in our society. It just lumped them altogether in some amorphous category called ”65+” even though they are as diverse as the population who’ve not yet reached the senior age.

a.     Under 20    ____
b.     20 – 34    ____
c.     35 –  49    ____
d.    50 –  64    ____
e.    65+        ____

We, the 5 million Canadians who are 65 or older, differ by age, income, education, marital status, health condition, and our living arrangements (full disclosure, I’m 80). Gerontologists recognize this by distinguishing three broad groups of seniors: the young-old (those aged 65-74); the old (those aged 75-84) and the old-old (those aged 85 and older). In other words, there is not just one kind of old age.

Nor is there a single way to experience it. The older one gets their organs may fail, brain functions may falter, circulation systems may become blocked, and oxygen may not get to vital tissues especially the older one gets. For example, the prospect of Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years after age 65 so that as many as 50% of those 85 and older may be afflicted. Everyone faces each of these probabilities of physical and mental frailty at some time in their old age, some more than others.

I’m not suggesting that old age is a dire situation for all elders; many fare very well in this period of their lives thanks to current medical practice and to themselves for practicing healthier lifestyles. The point is, as a neat saying has it: “Old age doesn’t come alone.” It comes with prospects of one affliction or another that, in turn, affects a senior’s way of life, her/his independence, and the need for support.

And it would be remiss of me not to mention gender differences among seniors. Indeed, most seniors are women  ̶  55%. And their share increases with age, so that among the old-old, the proportion of women reaches close to 75%.

Further, the circumstances of women seniors differ in many ways from those of their male counterparts. They live longer thereby facing more possibilities for frailty, they are generally poorer with the consequent effects on their housing choices and mobility, and they are much less likely to have a partner for late-life support (with perhaps the exception of those in lesbian relationships). In short, much about old age is concerned with women’s issues.

Susan Jacoby says in her new book, Never Say Die, that it’s “statistically disingenuous” to lump together all people over 65. (I’ll review her book in another post). She might also have said that it’s socially condescending, or more bluntly, it’s ageism!

In many ways ageism is to older people as sexism is to women. It is the blatant disregard of the characteristics of human beings who have simply gotten older, and the blanket application of stereotypes to an entire group. If your next survey lumps all seniors in one age category, and they ask for your comments, tell them to shape up!

-Gerald Hodge

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