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Older Lives Are Worth Living: Ageism & Deathmisia In Children’s Books
[Image: Illustration from ‘The Snake’s Toothache’ by Melinda Lilly & Charles Reasoner. Ilonel Tuul, a sturdy-bodied older Indigenous Mayan woman with rich brown skin and long, steely gray hair. She uses her strength to pulls a giant infected tooth using an ik’é rope to save her village from the grumpy wrath of Canti, the giant snake.]
How can we teach our kids to respect older people as they age with stories? This month, we’re examining the intersections of two forms of bigotry: ageism & death negativity.
How We Objectify Older Adults in Children’s Stories
We’re in a pandemic! But according to the media, we can take heart – it’s mostly older people and people with disabilities who are suffering and at great risk. Oh right and folks who don’t have connections to rare tests and expensive healthcare. So folks living in poverty, immigrants, and prisoners – those too. So long as we’re not those people, I guess we’re supposed to take that as a comfort.
This is acceptable because we treat targeted people as disposable. As if this suffering, these lives, are lesser, less human. Why are these lives are less precious? Why should their loss be any easier to accept?
We could get into how the kyriarchy upholds all of this – but today let’s examine how anti-elder ageism is normalized in our culture, such as the stories we read with our children. Along the way, let’s unpack our bias and smash it to smithereens.
How we normalize the oppression, suffering, and disposability of older adults
- Victim to be rescued
- Burden keeping younger people from achieving happiness (ableism!)
- Token elder providing a younger person with a lesson about illness, death and grief
Older adults are rarely protagonists or even people. They’re objectified caricatures for younger folks to use as props.
We accept it the invisibility of older adults in kidlit because we assume that older people are irrelevant in a society designed for young people. The same way parents of white boys assume that books featuring girls of color must only be for girls of color.
At best, older adults are accessories to the lives of younger people not just in stories targeted for young children, but in the mainstream media as well. They play roles as doting grandparents (rarely as primary caregivers), pitiful metaphors for death and sadness, and the sage mentor on the cusp of death who provides last-minute advice for young heroes – as if our mentors are ghosts of glory, incapable of heroics past the age of 50.
The social power of young adulthood is temporary
Whether it’s kidlit or adventure movies, we depict older adults with one foot in the grave. Dying, dead or close enough to it that their thoughts, feelings, and rights don’t really matter so much because their existence is so temporary.
This is reassuring to us because us younger folks – we’re not like them. We’re young, with our whole lives ahead of us! We’re vital and infallible and will live forever!!!
But we are temporary. Trying to distance ourselves from older adults, to depict them as ‘the other‘ as if there are old people and there are the rest of us is a false binary. It’s a construct we create out of fear and overwhelm. As comforting (and ridiculous) as it is to imagine older people keeping Death’s DMV busy and giving us more time in the queue- it’s hurting younger people too.
These biases and stereotypes are causing unnecessary suffering, and we’re about to face that, too.
Reading new stories without spreading germs:
Wondering how to get your hands on germ-free books during library closures? Check out our post about empowering kids during Coronavirus isolation for how we’re to keeping our story time stocked up and critter-free.
Ageism & Social Power Is a Bell Curve
There is nothing inherently bad about getting older. Ask any three-year-old! They are all about four! Four is going to be GREAT.
Thanks to ageism, children have little power in our society. With the rare exception of playgrounds, we’ve built environments suited to middle-aged adults, a fragile minefield for children and teens, full of opportunities for failure and embarrassment.
We’re raising our naturally curious, vibrant, and powerful bulls, but for some reason we’ve decided to build a china shop around them.
So as a kid and a teen, getting older comes with power, ability, and authority. And then – sometime around middle age, getting older comes with the loss of that social power. Getting older abruptly becomes a bad thing. We’ve cultivated an older generation full of vast knowledge, insight, and innovative experience, and we’re sequestering them out of public. What a wasted resource.
With marginalized identities, our membership to a targeted group is in flux. Our social identities aren’t fixed – as many multiracial folks can tell you. More of us are starting to realize that statuses such as poverty and gender aren’t as static as we once thought, either. Our age identity, by it’s unique nature, must change over time. Which means we have the privilege (and the horror) of experiencing both the benefits and targeting of age supremacy.
Our superiority or inferiority isn’t based in fact or science, despite what the medical pathology of aging suggests. Attributing value and metering power to people requires a mass of people participate in a social construct – the social model of aging. It’s not a fact that being very young, or very old, is worse than middle adulthood. We make it worse by designing society to suit a narrow slice of young and middle-aged adults, and allowing our systems to be hostile to anyone outside that slice.
We fear aging in the second half of our lives because of the stigma that comes with it. The loss of agency, power, visibility. We are no longer viewed as relevant. We’re no longer listened to, understood, or believed. This is so terrifying, we refuse to even identify with our future selves and those within that identity. This is ageism.
Proximity To Death Shouldn’t Affect Our Rights
Ageism against older adults is intricately intertwined with social deathmisia* – our fear of death. We treat those who are currently alive as superior to those who have died. As if those who face a higher risk of disability and death are inferior to those who are statistically more likely to survive.
*(I don’t even know if this is a word yet – but it works here so let’s use it for whatever the opposite of ‘Death Positivity’ is.)
Listen to our language – we lose lives, we fight death. Living is not a battle against death! Death is a natural and healthy result of life. Death isn’t a detour or a failure – it’s our final destination.
We like to believe that superior humans can overcome Death. As if surviving is completely within our individual control. We applaud folks who ‘cheat’ Death – as if this makes them superior to those who can’t. Dying does not make us inferior. It marks us as having lived.
Which is not to say we should be getting ridiculous about this. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding death, and mourning it. Nothing about dying or having a loved one die has to be okay. I’m just saying – perhaps as the living can we drop the contempt we carry for the dead identity and those who are about to gain it.
Living people feel pain. We need food, shelter, medicine. I’m cool with skewing heavily in favor of providing for those who are currently alive so they can stay that way as long as possible. Dead folks don’t need human rights. But people who are more likely to die do. When we are in the transition toward death, we need support and equity more than ever.
We must be mindful of how we associate our fear and bias against death with those more likely to die sooner.
People statistically more likely to die today are not dead. They are still alive – still in need of healthcare, and comfort, and safety, and dignity, and rights.
This negative bias against people at risk doesn’t just affect how we treat our oldest adults. It informs how we treat those with disabilities, illness, people targeted by the wealth gap, BIPOC, and so on. We’ve built a society where some folks are targeted and put at a higher risk of dying sooner – and then put them at an even greater risk.
Time is not the only variable that matters
Despite the vulnerability and mortality rate of the very young, deathmisia twines with ageism against older adults, but not infants. A 50-year-old is roughly as likely to die as an infant under the age of 1.* So what’s with assumptions behind older people and death? Why does our baggage about deathmisia color our impressions on older adults, in a way that doesn’t impact younger people?
(*Crap, I lost the link to my primary source. Help me out in the comments if you come across info on this, I want to make sure I’m not spreading misinformation.)
What instinct compels us to invest resources in younger people? Equating more time with more benefit to humanity is simple math, if we’re assuming an individual’s contributions is a net gain. Given my carbon footprint as a US citizen – I’m not so sure my continued existence on this planet is a good thing.
And we forget the impact of cumulative knowledge, wisdom, and lived experience. Are we sure that the contributions of a 30-year-old over the course of five decades will return a better impact to humanity than ten more years of contributions from an 80-year-old with lived experience, knowledge, and a network of people to share that insight with?
There’s no objectively right answer here. But it’s time to reconsider our assumptions that the deaths of older adults are acceptable losses. Older lives are worth living. Time is not the only variable that matters in our contributions to society.
There is an African proverb, which I first heard from Valerie Stephens –
When an elder dies, a library burns.
These calculations of ‘life potential’ are based in an economic theory that relies on a capitalist framework. The idea that some humans are ‘worth’ more than others reinforces the foundations of supremacy. Setting aside our internal bias against oppressed people: a 90-year old human should have the same rights to life, support, and human rights as a young one.
Raising young accomplices
So how do we combat this in our youngest people? How do we adjust the narrative for our next generation and affirm the value of older people in our society?
We show them that older adults play more roles than victim, burden, or lesson about grief. When older adults are missing from stories – it’s our job to poke holes in kids’ curiosity – ask, ‘who is missing here?’ Is this normal, for older adults to be completely invisible? Is this the way we want the world to be when we are older?
Show our kids that older adults play vital roles in our society. That older adults contribute to the common wealth of humanity. Or heck – even when they don’t contribute, they still have value and deserve rights and comfort and support. What value does a progressive society have if members can be cast off as disposable?
The stories below counter tropes of youth saviors – older adults solve problems on their own, without intervention or paternalism from younger people.
You might also like: Why Young Activists Depend On The Fight For Elder Rights
Celebrating Getting Older
Read a couple of these before your next birthday celebration. In a culture that hypes individual birthdays, we should show kids that it’s not just a celebration when we’re advancing from 0-21, but for the full scale of ages.
You might also like: Birthday Books For Kind & Brilliant Kids
Innovation In Older Ages That Requires Lived Experience
Show kids that older adults are capable of the kind of flexible, agile innovation that requires patience and experience to pull off effectively. There’s something slower and deeper and satisfying about the solutions these older heroes come up with.
You might also like: Empowering Kids With Disabilities Without Using Them As Inspiration Porn
Biographies of Older Adults
Biographies of history’s heroes tend to end around middle age – as if heroes quietly recede from society the minute they hit 60. The following biographies are good for at least a few reads. Sprinkle these stories into your discussions of courage, adventure, and exploration to show kiddos that living doesn’t slow down just because our bodies do.
- I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark
- Fearless Mary
- Henri’s Scissors
- Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code
- Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian trail
- A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks
You might also like: Tenacious Instigators – Biographies For Kids Celebrating Disabled Heroes
Older Protagonists Who Exist Outside Relation To Youth
We need more stories that help kids empathize with older adults without erasing our differences. Avoiding youthwashing, I guess. But also, have you noticed how rare it is to find books featuring older adults that don’t center or rely on a young person? Adults are not accessories to young people – but kids might get that impression based on all the books out there.
The following books provide older protagonists living their lives completely outside the sphere of young people. They have their own quirks and issues to deal with, solve their own problems, and don’t exist as accessories to youth.
- Mr. Putter & Tabby Pour the Tea
- Mrs. Armitage on Wheels & Mrs. Armitage And The Big Wave
- The Two Mutch Sisters
- Happy Birthday, Alice Babette
- A Sick Day for Amos McGee
You might also like: How Youth Saviorism In Kidlit Reinforces Ageism
Older Adults Who Learn
I don’t know where we picked up this idea that older adults can’t learn new things or remain open-minded. But I suspect it has something to do with our youthful oblivion – it’s hard to understand how complex issues are without living through the conversations, failures, mistakes, and hardship live throws at us over time.
With experience comes the realization that simple black and white issues have shades of gray between. Assuming that our minds can’t grow and change, or worse – that they might narrow and shrink, is ableist. The ableism that presumes people with mental disabilities remain perpetual children is just the other side of the coin on presuming older adults grow simple and inflexible in old age.
It’s so much more complicated than that. But I guess we need time to recognize that. The following books show older people learning, far beyond the age we deem socially acceptable to pick up new ideas and try them on.
You might also like: Believing #OwnVoices Older Kidlit Authors
Destigmatizing Anti-Elder Bias
Let’s teach our kids to acknowledge our youth privilege. What bias (both internal and external) and challenges do older people face that we young people don’t have to deal with? How are we complicit in reinforcing stereotypes and presumptions about older people?
You might also like Captivating Kids Stories To Recognize Privilege
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Reach Out To An Older Adult
Older adults are not just at risk due to viruses during the Coronavirus pandemic. The isolation older people are forced into during ordinary times already increases their risk of illness, mental stress, and early death. In practicing social distancing and isolation, further isolating older adults is devastating.
Call your older neighbors and see how they are doing. Hook them up with a videochat tutorial, do a run to the pharmacy for them, and most of all – listen to what they need and do what you can to help. But not like – in a paternalistic savior-y way. In the same way you’d offer help to a neighbor your own age. Remember that these are the folks who invented the technology we grew up with.
Comment below with ideas, resources, and initiatives (specify if local) on how we can connect with older adults and help them through social isolation measures.