Episode 2: Age Panic
In this episode: We can’t fight the forces that make us fear aging until we take a closer look at what they are.
Featuring host Sally Chivers with more from Andrea Charise (Associate Professor, University of Toronto Scarborough) on:
· What scares us about aging
· The value of older people
· Stories that divide generations
· Long-term care
· Fighting age panic
To read more about age panic:
- “With Friends Like These”: Unpacking Panicked Metaphors for Population Ageing
- Alzheimer’s, Age Panic, Neuroscience: Media Discourses of Dementia and Care (Not open access)
To read Stuart Hall on moral panic:
To read more about Giorgio Agamben's concept of bare life:
To find short, open access books with Promising Practices for Long-Term Residential Care (free pdfs):
Click to learn about research on older and intergenerational activists by the Aging Activisms Collective.
Sally Chivers 00:05
What scares you about aging? I want to tell you there's nothing to be afraid of, but that's probably not true. Somehow, somewhere along your life course, if you're lucky to live long enough to be old, there probably is something worth a little fear. Or maybe even a lot of fear. Changes will likely come that you'd rather didn't. You will experience loss, pain, loneliness, and more. You will experience death. But that's just not all there is to it. Unless you're extremely unlucky, you'll also experience growth, joy, community, and more. Some of those happier things will come out of the uglier things. That's the beautiful messiness of it.
Sally Chivers 00:59
Welcome to Wrinkle Radio, where the stories we tell about aging matter. I'm your host, Sally Chivers, and I am so glad you're here. Don't panic. It's just aging. That's the Wrinkle Radio tagline. And in this episode, I want to talk about age panic, what it means, what it does, and what we can do about it. It's mostly going to be me talking with a little more from Andrea Charise, who you heard from in episode one.
Sally Chivers 01:34
The other day, I Googled aging, to see what messages pop up. The first hit was for the Mayo Clinic website. I clicked on it and landed on a site that said, "aging, what to expect." Do you remember that book? What to Expect When You're Expecting, an advice manual for new parents? A friend of mine used to call it "what to fear in your first year." This website offered a list of what to fear in your final years. The website explains," you know that aging will likely cause wrinkles and gray hair. But do you know how aging will affect your teeth, heart and sexuality?"Wait, what? should I be nervous here? Back to the website, it continues. "Find out what changes to expect as you continue aging, and how to promote good health at any age." And then it gets into some pretty gritty details.
Sally Chivers 02:30
A quick sidebar, I don't doubt there's some good advice in the website. And I'm not here to put down the helpful effects of the Mayo Clinic's advice. I'm not a medical professional. I am a scholar and author who's an expert in the effects of language. And I'm part of a research team who studies the harmful effects of digital tools such as search engines that serve up biased views of aging. So I need to tell you why it matters that this is the first hit in my Google search.
Sally Chivers 03:03
Remember, I didn't Google "aging health". I just Googled "aging". And the first hit was entirely about health changes. The search results reinforce the mistaken idea that aging is only about health. Nothing on the list talks about what I might gain or what's going to get better as I age. There's nothing about spirituality relationships, love, creative expression, work, living space, travel, cooking. If I Googled "what to expect in my 20s," w kind of list would I get? Or "what to expect in my teens"? Sure, some biological changes might appear about fertility windows or hormones or moodiness. But I'll bet there would be future-focused adventure-based information about education, social life, play, fashion, and more.
Sally Chivers 03:59
The Mayo Clinic website's very clear that it's also going to tell me what to do about it. Before I find out what to expect even, I learn on that website, that I'm going to be able to take action. I think that part is supposed to be empowering. What can I do about this supposedly tragic turn of events? Will I be okay if I drink my eight glasses of water a day and walk my 10,000 steps? I've got this. I am going to nail this aging thing. Right? Maybe I just buy a fitness tracker. Will that help with the teeth and the heart parts? Will it help with the sex thing? I can't wait to see what kind of targeted ads I'll get now that I've Googled aging and spent time browsing on this Mayo clinic site. I know already it's going to be ads for products that will help me address the problems that come with aging. Things I can buy to take action.
Sally Chivers 04:55
This framing of aging as a problem that profits on fear drives this podcast. We worry about how this fear motivates the individual to believe they're entirely responsible for what happens to them as they age. This is where creepy ideas about preventing aging and getting out of the way of younger generations comes from. On Wrinkle Radio, we talk about the power of that fear, the potential harm it does and what we collectively can do to push back against that. If you choose to drink your water and walk your steps while we do it, fantastic. There is nothing wrong with doing what you can for your own health. That only becomes a problem if you or anyone around you takes the blame for not doing those things. It only becomes wrong if we start to believe people can and should avoid growing old.
Sally Chivers 05:51
And if you're sitting there thinking, I am kind of afraid of growing older. There are things that I fear. You're in very good company. I've been asking Age Studies scholars--researchers who spend a lot of time studying, thinking, and talking about age in cultural terms--I've been asking them about their fears. When I interviewed Andrea Charise, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Research in the Department of Health and Society at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, I asked her, based on all the research she's done on aging from different perspectives, empirical and cultural, artistic and qualitative, based on all those years of research, what if anything scares her about aging? Here's the first part of her answer.
Andrea Charise 06:34
Maybe I'll give a quick preface to what I'm saying. On the one hand, what has never scared me about aging has been the, I will say, the cosmetic realities of it: the wrinkles, the white hair, sagging, growing, whatever all of the kind of tendencies are in that respect. That has been less of a less of a focus, I would say, of my sort of late night, or early morning meditations, shall we say. And I think in part that comes out of a background I had, you know, I spent a lot of time, a lot of time, with very elderly grandparents. And as a result, just other elderly people, and one of the things I have I've never been afraid of and in fact, oh, it's interesting, how close how close to the surface emotions come sometimes... the beauty of translucent skin, the beauty of a wrinkled, nearly transparent, ancient skin on the face ... being kissed by, you know, an older, beloved grandparent was for me something I associate very strongly with some of the most, most touching moments, not just of my childhood but into my adolescence as well.
Sally Chivers 08:03
Wouldn't it be lovely if that was the first hit that came up when I Googled "aging"? I was reminded of a line from a Hiromi Gato novel The Chorus of Mushrooms: a character Naoe describes herself saying, "now my face is crumpled with care and seams adorn my cheeks." Andrea reminds us that older skin can also evoke love and connection as part of an enviable intergenerational upbringing. She brought it up when I asked about fear because we're so often encouraged to fear gray hair, wrinkles: the surface changes to our hair and skin that geriatrician Bill Thomas explains ... these changes, they cause no pain whatsoever. Age Studies scholar Stephen Katz recently reminded me these surface changes also have no dire health consequences whatsoever. How then do they become multibillion dollar industries?
Sally Chivers 08:13
Preventing signs of aging on the body make money by profiting on fear that we will somehow reveal through our wrinkles, through our gray hair, to the world that we're not as that Mayo Clinic website puts it "doing something about it." Doing something about aging. Saving the world from our health problems and our decline, as though that is possible for everyone and as though that is an individual responsibility. So the fear is that we will show the world that somehow we are going about aging the wrong way.
Sally Chivers 09:48
I call this age panic. And I don't just mean our own individual fears about gray hair and wrinkles, about becoming socially isolated, about whether we'll have to move into a nursing home. I'm talking about how those meet a social and cultural response to aging that imposes actions onto older people and judges them if, for whatever reason, they don't take those actions.
Sally Chivers 10:23
Age panic is a type of moral panic. A moral panic's an over-the-top public response to the perceived moral shortcomings and worrying behavior of a social group. I'm taking the concept from cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall. He was writing about how crime was reported in the newspaper in the early 1970s in ways that created unjustified fear about black youth and then repressive policies that furthered a terrible cycle.
Sally Chivers 10:50
How does this apply to older people now? You may or may not realize it, but you're already familiar with the story. It starts with a set of alarming and not quite accurate statistics about the aging of the population. It's illustrated with a large wave. Sometimes it's called the gray tsunami, sometimes the silver tsunami. The color represents the people who make up the wave. That gray or that silver reduces older people to their gray or silver hair in what we English professors called metonym, when a word's reductively used to represent something it's closely associated with, like crown to mean King, for example. That's a classic example. The tsunami, the silver or gray tsunami, in this horror story is full of the sheer overwhelming number of older people who are about to rise up and engulf the younger generation who are waiting on the shore worrying about how they're going to survive. Now those younger people in this horror story are also worrying about how to support the people on the wave. It's a one way idea of how support and need is going to work. And those younger people are also, in this horror story, worrying about how they can't access the opportunities supposedly offered to all of the older people looming over them: opportunities such as pensions, affordable house prices, career trajectories, a livable climate, and more. Usually, the younger generations are quivering in fear about what this whole impending catastrophe is going to cost them financially.
Sally Chivers 12:23
It's an absolutely abhorrent story. Many Age Studies scholars, including Andrea Charise have written about why it's awful. In short, it's inaccurate because that doesn't really describe a tsunami nor the way that demographics are shifting statistically; it's glib about actual climate crisis in the form of tsunamis that are happening; and it ignores the effects of those tsunamis and other climate crisis events on older people. It also figures the whole group of older people as a kind of privileged blob that is somehow also entirely dependent and burdensome. It takes away all texture, multiplicity and sets of inequity among that group of people; it misrepresents the actual drivers of rising healthcare costs; and it reduces an upcoming shift in demographics to a financial equation. The wave story is there to tell all of us that there's one right way to grow older. And that is basically not to change physically at all, or at least to do something about those changes, like the Mayo Clinic says. The wave says we are all doomed, unless we all, but especially older adults, take responsibility for our individual health outcomes: drink our eight glasses of water, walk our steps, play brain games, do balance exercises.
Sally Chivers 13:49
And this is where the morality of age panic comes in. When we're operating under age panic, we're believing that there's a right and a wrong way to grow old and we're buying into this idea that it's just a matter of choice what people decide to do, whether they age the right way or the wrong way. With that in mind, let's go back to the rest of Andrea Charise's answer, where she talks about what she does fear about growing older.
Andrea Charise 14:25
What does scare me and what has remained a fear of mine ... and worse for me is a fear that because I am a researcher, and because I have access to evidence and because I don't mind reading a whole lot of facts in search of the truth ... the messaging and the realities around long term care and particularly the experience of older people in and continuing within the current pandemic. The fact that to be an older person living in a long-term care scenario was a profound predictor of mortality and what that meant, not just in Canada and North America, but around the world. What happened in long-term care homes around the world during the pandemic: that is, to me is something I can't, I can't, I can't face, I cannot, I can't ... I have nothing to offer in terms of assuaging those fears.
Andrea Charise 15:33
In the the teaching and the education that I do in the university setting with undergraduates ... I teach a few courses. One is Creative Research Methods and Aging. Another is Aging and the Arts. And inevitably, this question of sort of the fears of aging will come up. What often happens ... it goes something like this: that students come in and they think, "ah, aging, the worst, right"? I'm like, "okay, maybe, let's read a few things, experience a few things." And later on in the course, they're like, "actually, wow, I realized that ageism is as big a problem and is as important an ism as these other modes and vehicles of systemic prejudice, and dis inclusion or exclusion are." Good, glad, good learning. Okay. What I often get at that moment is "What about this longxterm care thing? The congregate living? How do you explain that away?" And my tactic, for better or for worse, but my own is, I can't lie about what I still feel very deeply is the reality of the abject and what Agamben might refer to as the conditions of bare life in some of these long-term living scenarios, or long-term manners of living with aging, particularly with with severe forms of cognitive impairment.
Sally Chivers 16:51
Andrea here is talking about Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher and political theorist who talks about this idea of bare life being a time or a situation where people are reduced to their biology. Other scholars have built on that to describe a sort of living death for particular people in particular circumstances. And so Andrea, here, is, I think we can all agree, aptly applying that to the circumstances of some people living in nursing homes, and particularly those people who were living in nursing homes in the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Andrea Charise 17:35
That is, for me, a horizon I am not yet able to approach in my work for reasons that are personal, first and foremost and professional second. I'm not quite ready to talk about them. But it's a line that again, I'm not yet able to say that I have ... it's a line I've not yet crossed with courage. Growing out your white hair is easy. I would say that as someone ... I don't have children; I am not married. And so while we all know that that is not the recipe for a happy old age by any stretch, ask King Lear, you know, nevertheless, the very real possibility of thinking about an old age should I be lucky enough to experience it that is solitary and possibly without the kinds of social connections or wealth that is required to ensure a basic amount of comfort and stability at that moment of profound vulnerability. Those are things I'd like some worksheets fromyou and your colleagues about, perhaps, to get some new ways of thinking.
Sally Chivers 18:44
I so appreciate Andrea's honest and direct answer here. What she says is related to age panic. I'm not saying that she's buying into a moral panic. I'm saying that the conditions that create age panic are the same conditions that make long-term residential care a frightening prospect. If we continue to buy into the idea that older individuals are responsible for particular actions to save themselves from say the fate of bare life in a nursing home. If we continue to do that, we will not be able to change an overall system that undervalues older people to the extent that we have allowed nursing home care to become the problematic sector that it has become. As Andrea says, I have been part of a research team: "Reimagining Long-Term Residential Care." We studied long-term residential care in a number of countries over about 10 years. We did find some what we call promising practices that could improve the situation for people living and working in those spaces.
Sally Chivers 18:56
But in order for those to be embraced, and thoroughly enacted, we also have to shift age panic. And so that's why I'm starting here in the podcast with how we think and talk about aging and how we're encouraged by the social and cultural signs around us to think about and interpret our own aging. This is why it matters what comes up when I Google just a simple, seemingly neutral term, like "aging."
Sally Chivers 21:21
I did decide to Google "teenager" and the first hit I got was for Teen Vogue magazine. And the first story on the site was about teen activists. Now I know that there are older activists. I know some of them. I see their pictures occasionally in the local newspaper. One of my colleagues at Trent University does incredible research, partnering with them and looking at how they work intergenerationally. So how might we change the association so that that's the first image that comes to mind when we think about aging? People who are eager tochange the world and have a lot of experience that might help us do that.
Sally Chivers 21:56
Even though I've been talking about age panic, there is no need to panic. I invite you to notice whenever you're being coerced or encouraged to fear aging, your own or that of people around you. And when you notice those things, take another moment to think about how we could change the conversation to include what we reap, what we benefit from, when people age. What do we collectively gain from this changing demographic situation?
Sally Chivers 22:13
This has been Wrinkle Radio. I'm your host, Sally Chivers. Thank you for listening. Thank you so much to those of you who have been spreading the word about Wrinkle Radio. I'd appreciate it if you'd like, subscribe, follow, tell your friends, tell your family, tell your student,s tell your colleagues, and watch out for the next episode.
Sally Chivers 22:24
Until then, don't panic! It's just aging.
Episode includes music from freesound by Graham_Makes – CC 4.0 license, aluroso, and valentinsosnitskiy. from artlist by Duce Williams and Michael Shynes.