Friday, October 23, 2009

on gendered aging

I'm 3 focus groups into a set of 4 facilitating discussion of what it means to age well in Haliburton County, part of a larger research project being conducted by our local Health Unit and Family Health Team. A Trent student, through U-Links, is collating the data from a survey done over the summer that was well publicized and elicited a good response.

The focus group participants are 'seniors', as, of course, am I, although I do not self-identify as that. Which interests me. Does it imply that I feel the word, the category, is denigrating?

Yeah, I think I do. In subtle ways. The first thing that bothers me is the looseness of the term: it is used to describe a 50-year span, from age 50 to when you die, which could be 100.

Secondly, because it is used so loosely, the logic goes all to hell. The presumptions are not made clear, and the subsequent discussion has a good chance of not being about the same thing.

Age is one presumption; others are about the process of aging. Which, as I and those around me grow older (is there an alternative?), I find much more variable than, say, the process of adolescence, of becoming an adult. I know I am not the only person who has a start of surprise when I see myself reflected in a shop window and wonder who the grey-haired woman is: I don't feel the age I look. I know this perspective is shared by others. I'm told I don't look or act the age I am. Michael, on the other hand, since his go-round with cancer 15 or so years ago, is physically older than me even though he is two years younger.

When I was working with adolescents in the child care system, I would rail about the injustice of aging them legally: at 16 they could not be required to live where placed - they could leave 'home' or, alternately, be kicked out if they didn't meet expectations. At 18 they were legally adult and could no longer be cared for by their state parents. And so forth. Is it different at the other end of the adult spectrum?

Not yet. We're protected by the fact that we are votors who can register our dissatisfaction with legalizing us wrongly or unnecessarily (e.g., the debate about mandatory retirement at 65). And by the demography of our country, with its bulge of Boomers, which gives us (although I'm older than David Foot's definition of Boomer, although that designation, as well, is used very loosely) a numerical advantage.

But I think we're in danger. The basic paper developed by the federal government on managing the greying of the demography is, to my reading, founded on the fear that we older people are going to scupper the economy unless a way is discovered to have us age more cheaply. The Problem is that we are old longer - we don't have the good grace to die when we cease to be productive. I recall seeing an 'art film' when I was in undergraduate studies where an old woman who was Eskimo (as we said in those days) or maybe Japanese, voluntarily left the village and went into the wild to die. It's entwined in my memory with the idea of going into the great beyond on an ice pan. Our culture doesn't have the stomach to look the issue in the eye quite that boldly.

Another Problem is that we hog health services as we age, and to what (economic) avail? Heart surgery on a 40-year-old who has 20 more years to contribute his taxes is one thing; what about the person who has left the work force? My greatest fear, on the contrary, is that the health system will insist on prolonging my life beyond what I would wish. And that it medicalizes the aging process. I recall being 'encouraged' to take Hormone Replacement Therapy as the responsible thing to do for my loved ones and my country: to refuse (as I did) was to willingly expose society to the cost of my self-chosen, it would seem, decripitude. I did not (quite in those words) say I Told You So when HRT had its sudden and dramatic fall from grace.

But I am presently harassed to be treated for osteoporesis, which I am diagnosed with having by the results of annual bone scans that were routinely put in place when I turned 55, I think, some magic number, maybe 60. I am hugely sceptical about the norming of bone scan results. Almost every woman I speak to says she, like I, was told she had 'the hips of a 90-year-old' on her first assessment, and since then gets graphed on the osteoporesis bell curve. My questions about how these results have been normed have never been answered to my satisfaction, and I do not know why I continue to undergo these annual tests. In fact, I have decided I will discontinue them, because I know that I will not take treatment for the condition they purport to diagnose.

Both HRT and medicine's love affair with osteoporesis are examples of gendered medicalization of normal physical processes. My husband, using any of the predictors of osteoporesis, is very much more at risk than I, but has he ever been sent to have a bone scan? No. Why? Because he's the wrong gender: osteoporesis is conceptualized as a post-menopausal condition which, inadvertently or otherwise, pretty much leaves males out of consideration. I wonder when men being under-diagnosed for osteoporesis will be as much of an issue as women being under-diagnosed for heart conditions.

My time is up; thus endeth the rant for today