COLUMN: Are you saying I’m old?

Columnist ML Burke explains ageism and takes umbrage with people who think "old" means "less than."

Dear Television Media:

I’m writing this open letter to you because of an innocent comment made by a local news anchor. I’m a regular viewer of the 6:00 p.m. news and I usually agree with amusing side-bars made by various news staff. I get that occasional editorial comments lighten difficult or surprising news stories.

This particular comment, made by a popular 40-something female anchor, gave me pause.

Her response to her male colleague’s reference to keeping up with changing technology was, “Are you saying I’m old?” whereupon she looked wide-eyed into the camera, seemingly in shock, and shook her head.

The optics immediately broadcast to viewers is that “old” is bad, negative, don’t want it, not me. I’m sure she was going for a laugh, but it’s humour with a cost.

I just attended this year’s COSCO (Council of Senior Citizens Organizations) conference, titled “Aging Well – A quest for all generations.” Over 800 delegates came representing most regions of the province and organizations working with older adults and the issue that kept coming up was ageism. Wikipedia, a popular though questionable resource, defines this word as “stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age.”

One of the major points made was how the label “aging” and terms like seniors, elders, etc., relate to the new, healthier retirees; most do not want to be labeled as seniors because of its negative connotations in our society. “Seniors” are useless, old rich people who are using up all of our pension funds and are bankrupting our health system.

These are serious misconceptions that require a reality check and I believe it’s the duty of the media to help correct them. Truth be told, we are all aging from the moment we take our first breath.

Isobel MacKenzie, B.C.’s seniors advocate, said, “Contrary to some public perception, seniors are not all rich and enjoying the golf course; in fact, half of B.C. seniors have an income of less than $24,000. We are not all headed for the nursing home; 85 per cent of seniors over the age of 85 live independently. We are not all going to develop dementia; 80 per cent of seniors over the age of 85 do not have a diagnosis of dementia. The emergency departments are not flooded with seniors; in fact only 22 per cent of emergency department visits are for those over 65.”

It’s time we flip that silver tsunami image, which is a disaster, into one of a bunch of healthy, active older adults surfing a big wave alongside their younger counterparts, the old “70 is the new 50.”

We are living healthier and about 30 years longer than we did in the 1950s. That leaves 30 years or more (55 to 85) for us to continue contributing to society, if not in the workforce then as volunteers, mentors, educators, activists, board members, caregivers or by simply pursuing activities we couldn’t do during our working years. Living to 100 is still impressive, but becoming more commonplace. At some point we will likely become frail but that ending is far in the future for most of us.

Isobel pointed out the irony in Wikipedia’s definitions for ageism and senior, the latter being defined as “a person of higher standing than another, especially by virtue of longer service.”

We ‘seniors’ need the media to help rebrand this perception of who we actually are.

ML Burke retired from the health sector to work on issues such as affordable housing. She sits on the Delta Seniors Planning Team and the BC Seniors Advocate’s Council of Advisors.