Aging is rejected as a pathological disorder in our society. There are some who even want it categorized as a disease. People who are unable to hide their aging are rejected along with it. They are cloistered away into any number of facilities designed to separate them from the rest of us.
The pressure to “restrain” the natural process of aging is enormous. We have all sorts of devices that attempt to restrain aging: Botox for wrinkles, Spanx to smooth and corset our changing bodies, hair dye to cover the gray. These are all products advertised to restrain the outer signifiers of age. What of the internal changes? We have Lumosity to keep our memory sharp and we run quickly to the doctor for pills the minute anything in our status-quo changes.
The attempt to restrain aging starts innocently enough; what is wrong with wearing Spanx or dying your hair? It depends on why you are doing it. Are you rejecting aging? Are you trying to cultivate a frozen adulthood? The problem is that, while it starts with innocuous things like Spanx, the shift is insidious.
Our society is not kind to aging. In fact, it despises it and hides it. All the botox and all the Spanx will not halt the aging process. So what happens when you can’t pass for young anymore? What happens when your brain stops working like the brain of a younger person? What happens when your intuition is stronger than your cognition? What happens when words, which we rely on so heavily for communication, no longer come easily? What if you had to express your needs another way?
In fact, one in three people will develop some form of memory loss — Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias — before the end of their life. One in three of you. And when this happens in society as it is today, your new way of being and communicating is often deemed as a behavior problem.
Just as our society pressures you to eradicate wrinkles, it will work very hard to eradicate your new “behavior problems” if you are living with dementia. Not that long ago, you would have been restrained with actual physical restraints for exhibiting “behavior problems” associated with dementia. Today, you face the risk of “chemical restraints.” These are off-label, powerful anti-psychotic drugs used to quiet your symptoms (to the outside world) but do nothing to meet your needs. Now, you still have to try to communicate your needs, but words are even harder to find and the channels of accepted communication are lost–if you fight for your needs to be met, you actually will be restrained physically. The restraint will have cutesy language like “buddy” or “hugger” or the word “safety” in its name. The name does not change what it is: a violent form of restraint on aging. According to the CDC, these drastic and inhumane measures are still used 10% of the time.
The villain is not the caring people who work in long term care; they are doing the best they can with the culture and with the tools provided for them. The villain is anti-aging and systemic rejection and restraining of aging personally and culturally. The restraint of aging needs to stop, and not just in its most horrific forms, but in the smaller more innocuous ways as well.
As children we welcomed the aging process excitedly, wondering when we would grow and what we would look like. We quickly lose this wonder as we become seduced by an anti-aging culture into disavowing, denying and resisting aging. We’re pressured to see aging as a villain to be stopped, to be restrained.
It is time to redefine aging as natural, not pathological!
To raise awareness about this I have partnered with quilter Heidi Parkes and organizing a call to action tied to Dr. Bill Thomas’ Age of Disruption Tour. Together we are going to create a quilt, something stereotypically made by elders for comfort, out of these objects of restraint. We could purchase these objects, but we live in a capitalistic society where that would only help the already profitable anti-aging industry. We are making a call for materials from any physical object that restrains aging. Get creative–this will be a fine art quilt meant for a wall, not a bed, so the materials do not have to be fabric or soft. They could be hair dye boxes, wander guards, restraint vests, pill bottles, etc. Look around your world. Search your soul.
How do you see aging being restrained? We are asking Age of Disruption Tour audiences to bring what you find with a brief story of how it is attempting to restrain aging to our Spring Tour stops. There will be a box to collect them in the lobby (If you cannot come to the tour but want to participate you can contact me here to arrange shipment). We will be collecting items until June 1st. The quilt will be crafted over the summer and displayed on the fall stops of the tour as well as on-line.
Hello, I am a AGNG 200 student from the Erickson School of Aging. I really enjoyed reading your post today about Ageism and how harmful it is in our culture. I really enjoyed how you discussed how aging is encouraged and celebrated in young age. In my course we have discussed how events in our young age bring more meaning to life, and we call these rites of passage. The text discusses how these rites of passage bring the person into the next stage of life and gives them meaning. Our culture reinforces the meaning by the celebration of these rites of passage, for example, a bar mitzvah, confirmation, wedding, and graduating from college. What if we put more rites of passage into older age? Would it give more meaning to aging and potentially increase life satisfication in older age? If you are interesting in the text I am referring to, it is “Aging Concepts and Controversies”, by Harry R. Moody, and Jennifer R. Sasser, p. 7. Thanks for your time,
Still the Lucky Few says
Your quilt will certainly stop people in their tracks and force them to consider the terrible consequences of stereotyping and (even restraining older adults!). Of course, symbolic gestures like yours do much to promote the work of changing aging. It adds to the already powerful movement of change, led by writing and blogging and active participation in the Age of Disruption Tour. These are exciting times!
Jeanette Leardi says
What a powerful idea for a grassroots art project! Confronting the logical absurdity and social obscenity of trying to restrain the aging process needs this kind of visual impact in order to move everyone from complacency and into action to change attitudes about getting older. I congratulate you and Heidi on your creativity and daring!