Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age. Sexism is the stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination against people on the basis of their sex or gender. For India, where, as of 2016, there are 104 million older adults (aged 60 years and above), these dual phenomena interact with each other in complex and ever-evolving ways to isolate older adults, impinge upon their autonomy and undermine their dignity. As with other forms of stigma and discrimination, both have insinuated themselves into everyday life to become pervasive to the point of being “usual” or “normal” – dangerous words to use.
The Naming of the Other
Micro-aggression with respect to ageism, so often begins with the words we use. “Old people” is pejorative, as is “elderly”, all the more so when you and I qualify it on the basis of gender – “that old man” or “that old woman”. The question we must ask ourselves is whether the number or years lived under the sun or the social role a person plays is the sum total of their identity.
Ageing is a normal life process, something that we all undergo. But at what point does someone become “old” – a word with ageist connotations that we are yet to realize. Where does one draw the line in the sand – this side young and that side old? To call someone old rather than older, is to render them the other. “Mangy old coot” is ageist, as is “Buddha sathiya gaya”. But then, so are positivist terms such as “Sweet little old lady”.
The Stigmatization of the Physicality of the Ageing Body
India fetishizes youth and its young. We make a grand old (pun intended) hoo-hah about having a young and vibrant demographic. We objectify the young body in our movies and music. The unspoken corollary is that the ageing body in its raw physicality is shameful. To have skin that wrinkles, hair that greys or breasts that sag is unappealing and offends our delicate sensibilities. Such people may exist, but not as attractive beings with wants and desires.
This stigma is often internalized over time to the point where older adults are made to feel they are unattractive and that nobody their age has any business to experience romance or sexuality. Witness the shame heaped upon Ratna Pathak Shah’s character in Lipstick Under My Burkha and Neena Gupta’s in Badhaai Ho and the horror their male offspring react with when both older women pursue love and intimacy – the former outside the confines of sanctimonious marriage and the latter within it. Both are just as unpalatable to young, upwardly mobile patriarchs. Sex should serve them no purpose outside reproduction – at an acceptable time of life, one may add.
Deterioration as the New Normal
Most representations of older adults in popular culture deal with them developing some illness—cancer or dementia or a heart attack. To age is to fall sick, to decline, to fade gently into the good night. Even in health care, it’s often considered normal for older adults to be ill depressed or develop dementia. It is not. The WHO defines Healthy Ageing, “…as the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age”. This is a fundamental right in ageing. Ableism in thought and deed excludes older adults from living their best life and from the quality of care that is their right. This further interacts with gender – the ageing man may stay able and independent, the ageing woman must be supplicant and a dependent.
Very few spaces in India are age-friendly – from the absence of staircases in apartment complexes which effectively maroon older adults in high rise buildings to the “Indian toilet” – a horror for the older body. Would we be able to puff up three flights of stairs or squat over a hole in the ground three or four decades down the line?
India has the Child Welfare Committee and the National Commission for Women. Where is its equivalent for older adults—what should be our equivalent to the Adult Protective Services in developed countries? This blind spot has existed, and will continue to do so—longer than it should, despite a survey by HelpAge India in 2018 describing elder abuse in 25 of 50 % of households.
And what of ageing in gender and sexual minorities?
Much of the work in research and public health policies on ageing in India are heteronormative. This despite research showing at least 5 to 10 % of older adults all around the world report identifying as LGBTQIA. Ageing often forces people back into the closet—a third form of invisibility.
The Older Adult as an Act of Sacrifice
Indian cultural representations often mythologize the wise old man or woman as a guru, a spiritual advisor, a soothsayer. They must exist to give of themselves—no longer as independent agents of their fortunes. Having given of themselves, they must then depart when they have outstayed their welcome. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out our innate Darwinism. There are calls on older adults to lay down their lives for the young and not take up health care and welfare resources unnecessarily. Among older adults, naturally, the lives of women matter less than in men, the lives of the socio-economic underprivileged matter less than in those with privileges.
One Size Does Not Fit All – A Case for Diversity in Ageing
What do all these diverse ways of representing and conceptualizing older adults have in common – apart from underpinnings of ageism and sexism in a youth focused, developing country?
In doing thus, we deprive older adults of agency and independence and reduces them to caricatures and a bunch of loosely held stereotypes. All older adults must be the same. All older men must be the same, as must all older women. This one size fits all approach to ageism benefits nobody – neither its proponents nor its recipients. Individuality is not just the forte of the young. As we grow older, we carry our unique identities and idiosyncrasies with us. Crossing an arbitrary chronological threshold does not confer uniformity – dangerous pitfall our paternalistic culture and public policies often fall into.
The Way Forward
What then, is a better way forward?
A life narrative that respects autonomy and centres on consent. My argument, thus, is for inclusivity and an approach to ageing that is informed by feminist theory. Older bodies are not less capable of experiencing or inspiring desire than younger bodies, just differently so. Older lives are not worth less than younger lives, even in times of wars and pandemics. Most importantly, older adults should be stakeholders and decision makers in their health care. Decisions must be made with them and by them, not to them, with respect for diversity.
This would be an India that one might look forward to –one I hope to witness in my lifetime. A place where this argument for inclusivity in discourse and respect for diversity will be delivered by an older adult and not by someone speaking on their behalf.
The Human Rights Agenda
The WHO has declared 2020-30 as the Decade for Healthy Ageing, aligned with the achievement of better health and quality of life for older adults, aligned to the UN Global Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030 and Universal Declaration for Human Rights. Further, the UN has also called for the 21st century to be the century of gender equality. These are laudable goals, impossible to achieve unless India comes on board in a committed manner.
Featured Image Source: The Indian Express