In David Mitchell’s book “Cloud Atlas”, the character Timothy Cavendish gets tricked into checking himself into a nursing home, from which there is no escape. When Cavendish tries to explain the mistake to the people who run the nursing home, he’s accused of senility, drugged and locked in his room. The book goes on to paint a picture of an intelligent, resourceful man continually frustrated by other people’s assumptions about what it means to be 65-years-old.
No one (with the exception of the man who tricked him) knows where Cavendish is. Even worse, no one bothers looking—his acquaintances immediately write him off as dead or retired, then return to their normal lives. Cavendish is cut off from the rest of the world. His attempts to contact his family are thwarted by nurses and orderlies. It’s as if the world has decided to shut Cavendish away because it no longer perceives him as useful or necessary.
The story of Timothy Cavendish raises an important question about the nature of our society’s relationship to ageing: why do we put distance (both physical and psychic) between ourselves and our elders? Why do we consider it so important to keep people over a certain age behind closed doors or out of the media spotlight? Why have we adopted an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards the idea of ageing and towards older people in general?
The simple answer is that people don’t like being confronted with the inevitable reality of the ageing process. They don’t like being reminded that they will never again be as young or as strong as they are right now; that they’ll someday be relegated to a nursing home or 24-hour care. To be confronted with the inevitability of ageing is to be confronted with the inevitability of death. Since most people do whatever they can to avoid dwelling on their own mortality, it’s not surprising that we try and look the other way when it comes to the question of ageing. I’m not saying people would rather lock their ageing parents in a closet than confront questions of life and death. I’m simply saying that, in the public sphere, older people are frequently (and increasingly) underrepresented or misrepresented.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a quick peek at the Grandparents.com homepage and try to find pictures of people who are over 70 years old. Grandparents.com, which is supposed to be geared towards grandparents and senior citizens, has an incredibly unrealistic and almost utopian depiction of aging. If you visit Grandparents.com, you’ll find a lot of articles with titles like “The Health Benefits of Having an Orgasm” next to photos of smiling people in their early 50’s. The image below is a pretty great example. Is it just me, or does the woman in this photo look like Mischa Barton with her hair dyed white?
The frustrating thing about these kinds of depictions of ageing is that they frame ageing as a choice—a choice we make when we don’t buy the right skin cream or drive the right car. This, in turn, transforms youth into an economic status symbol—a highly valuable and sought-after community, even in markets that are traditionally geared towards older people. This is inevitable, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing when people operate off of the assumption that those who don’t have access to this commodity (older people) are somehow less valuable than those who do (younger people).
It’s this type of evaluative framework that naturalizes and justifies the financial exploitation of older adults. When elders are framed by the dominant cultural narrative of capitalism as a drain on fiscal resources, people feel justified stealing from them in order to recoup their losses. That’s why you hear so many stories about adult children who take advantage of their parent’s financial situation. These children don’t see what they’re doing as exploitation. In their mind, they’re simply balancing the ledger—receiving compensation of the time and energy they invest in their parents.
The inherent problem with this line of reasoning is that it reduces living, breathing human beings to faceless economic transactions. It assumes that the value of a person can somehow be calculated; that we can divide the human race into people who are still useful and people who no longer have anything to offer—beyond what we can take from them against their will.
Unfortunately, these assumptions are built into the capitalist system, which emphasizes the values of productivity and efficiency. As long as our society continues to place a premium on the importance of economic gain, bodies that are capable of being assimilated into the workforce will always be held in higher esteem than bodies that have less to offer in terms of economic productivity. This means that we will continue assigning value to things that generate revenue (people capable of working, supporting a family, etc.) while devaluing, rejecting or concealing that which does not.
If we want to change the way society treats elders, we first have to change the way we think and talk about ageing. Breaking away from the assumption that economic utility predetermines value is the only way to shatter the lens of cost-benefit analysis that society uses to justify the exploitation of older adults.