It makes me happy when I come across other people writing about the serious effects of ageist language. The latest I've seen is from a trio of academics who work in the field of ageing:
”Recent articles in a variety of publications provide an illustration about the language of ageism and aging,” they wrote recently in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“They use language that describes aging as 'a catastrophic condition,' an 'ailment' or 'a social problem.' Aging is neither a catastrophe nor a malady. Yet the words we use to describe aging certainly seem to tell a different story.
“The language of ageism is entrenched in our daily vocabulary and is so commonplace that it is practically invisible.”
The three go on to list some of the conditions that are mistakenly conflated with ageing:
”...all adults are living longer. Adults with chronic health conditions, including HIV, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, are living longer. But let’s please not confuse the side effects of these diseases and long-term use of medications as anything akin to the normal aging process.
“Normal aging does not create frailty in our aging population; frailty is an actual medical condition.”
For many years, I've been saying these same things along with others the three writers cite but it's terrific to see it gaining a wider audience beyond my blog online and in print.
That said, however (that ageing is not a disease in and of itself and should not be spoken of in that manner), there is no denying that if we live long enough, even disease-free, there will be decline we must each accommodate.
So just to confuse you, I'm going to discuss an article by a woman who has since 2001, lived with a debilitating illness, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). I know there is a great deal of controversy about it, that some people deny CFS is real, and for that reason, Toni Bernhard usually doesn't name it:
”One reason is the absurd name,” she wrote in 2011. “As others have pointed out, calling it, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is like calling Emphysema, Chronic Cough Syndrome, or Alzheimer’s, Chronic Forgetfulness Syndrome.”
I don't have an opinion about CFS but according to various publications, due to the debility it has caused her, Ms. Bernhard was forced to give up her 22-year-career as a law professor and has never been able to return.
She has, however, managed to write some books the first, in 2010, being, How to be Sick – A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I haven't read it nor her two subsequent books and probably will not.
But on the same day I came across the ageist language news story, I also found an article she wrote in the tenth year of her illness.
It is titled 10 Tips From 10 Years Sick and although it is about being chronically ill at any age, it struck me that the insights she has gained are just as useful for any healthy elder dealing with the normal changes that can accompany the final third of life. Here is a sampling:
1. Take time to grieve your old life and then create a new one. “I was in such denial that I forced myself to return to work while sick. When my body finally broke down and I had to trade the classroom for the bedroom, I was angry for months.
“Then I was paralyzed with sadness over the loss of my identity...if someone had told me I’d write a book from the bed, I would have said, Not possible. But I did."
Old people can do this too. When an activity becomes too difficult or impossible to do, we can redirect our attention to try something else. Can't run anymore? How about a bicycle or a walk. Can't drive at night anymore? Find more to do in the daytime, as I did. And so on.
5. Find beauty in small things. “I’ve learned to do with seeing beauty in the small happenings in my bedroom: a spider, dropping from the ceiling on a silken thread, only to stop a foot above the bed; a fly, dashing around the bedroom like some crazy freeway driver.
“When I wrote about this in Issa: My Life Through the Pen of a Haiku Master a reader commented, saying she’s had to trade a life of activity for one of stillness, but when she uses that stillness to observe her small world closely, 'it almost seems like an even trade.'”
Appreciation of small things doesn't arrive only in the stillness and confinement Bernhard speaks of. It happens as easily to those of us lucky enough to be healthy and mobile – just old. I've heard it so often from so many that I wonder if it is an attribute that comes with growing old.
9. We’re fortunate to live in the Internet Age. “I can’t imagine how much more difficult this illness would be if I couldn’t connect with others on the web who are similarly sick. Through blogs and Facebook and my website, I’ve met people from all over the world.
“When I think of how isolated people were who were sick just a few decades ago, I feel fortunate to be sick in the Internet Age.”
Any of you who have been hanging around this blog for awhile know that I could have written that last item word for word.
In my case, it's about how fortunate the internet is for old people who may be perfectly healthy but lose the camaraderie of the workplace when we retire, who may move away from old friends and neighbors (or vice versa) and whose social circles continue to shrink when friends and relatives die.
There are now many people important to me I would never have known except through this blog and other places online, and about half the people I treasure most I've met via the internet.
It might seem to be a contradiction for me to insist that old age is not a disease and then recommend ways to deal with the limitations that can come with it. It's not and slowing down can be seen as a good thing, if you want, after several decades of a whole lot of go, go, go.