I was trapped in a car for 25 minutes with 3 strangers, recently. The seemingly benign conversation took such an uncomfortable turn, It felt like I had witnessed someone being attacked and remained quietly complicit. A fellow passenger, proceeded to recount a ‘funny story’ about her 95-year-old mother. Her mother was nearly blind and confined to a wheelchair. One day, she said, her mother was ‘complaining’. The woman-who was well over 60- reminded her mother that assisted suicide was now legal in Canada, and that if the mother was so inclined, it could be arranged for her to just ‘go to sleep’…
Cue the nervous chuckles from the rest of the occupants in the car, who had suddenly been thrust into a world where putting your mother to sleep for complaining, was something that seemingly sane strangers joked about.
The International Federation on Ageing suggests that “incidents of ageism are normalized by suggestions that older people should move out of the way and let others have a chance”. A chance at what? At staying alive? In my new increasingly uncomfortable ‘backseat car-world, when your mother loses her status as agentic human, and becomes a troublesome ‘other’, the solution was obvious. My shock, after considering what had been said, did not permit me to pose a question as to how would she have felt having reached the same age and physical state as her mother, in similar conversation with her own daughter? And that is the point. Agism prevents us from imagining ourselves at a similar age, or in pain, or in some way physically diminished. Death is preferable to becoming the stereotypical ‘burden’ to your loved ones.
My mother, who was 41 when I was born, died 20 years ago, when I was 36, too quickly, from lung cancer. I think about her every day. We managed her dying together. She wanted to die at home in her bed. The combined efforts of home care, morphine, oxygen, and a Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR) helped me get through the week, except for the night my mom was so agitated by the morphine, she started to cry for help, and a nurse-friend of my brothers’ had to calm me, long distance, reminding me that the DNR made calling 911 futile. As a nurse in the 1940’s my mother understood more than I did, and despite her pain and discomfort, mustered her strength to help prepare her daughter for a motherless future. A year later I helped a friend through her mother’s passing, numbly offering advice, while standing at a payphone in the local mall. When you watch someone die, you join a club that necessitates sharing what you know with others who are mostly, as you were, uncomprehending of the process of dying.
As a society, we need to come to terms with our own mortality and stop burdening the old with our fears. Watching a parent age and sometimes die is what children do, whether you are 36 or 66. What if the roles were reversed? Would your parent make a joke about ‘putting you to sleep’ if you were a 15 year old with a debilitating condition? In societies such as ours, where individuals are routinely living mostly healthy lives that can span nine decades or more, we need to address the systemic agism that serves to diminish and marginalize the adults who have the audacity to need us, for 5 or so years at the end of their lives. Growing older in a way that is convenient, or suits our children’s sensibilities is impossible. Understanding older adults as our future-selves is key, to creating a future without agism.