Ageism in Writing

Some years ago, I read an award-winning novel about intergenerational family relationships. Every character in the story over age fifty was physically or mentally decrepit, and often both. The author was in her thirties. This was a comic novel and I realized she was exaggerating the characters for laughs. As an official senior citizen, I didn’t find it funny.

Physical and mental problems do tend to creep in with age. Aching joints, dementia, type two diabetes, high blood pressure, clogged arteries, and a host of cancers strike seniors in large numbers. I know several seventy-year-olds who have broken bones from a simple fall. In their youths, they’d have escaped with a scratch, which healed quickly. I find recovery from injuries and medical procedures takes longer now and my body parts don’t always return to their former normal. “You’re only as old as you feel” would be nice, but it isn’t quite true. Portraying seniors as no different from fit twenty-somethings only works in science fiction and fantasy — my fantasy, in particular.

But I also have many friends over age seventy-five who regularly spend full days hiking up steep hills, over rocky and rooted terrain. And don’t try to put something over on my ninety-year-old uncle. He’s as sharp as most people decades younger, although he needs a wheelchair.

I think one trick for writing realistic older people is balance. For each character brought down by the trials of advanced age, show another senior in peak form. I wouldn’t have minded that award-winning humour novel as much if one character over fifty, and preferably over seventy or eighty or ninety, climbed a mountain, clobbered a skilled opponent in chess, or published a successful humour book.

It’s not easy to avoid ageism in writing. A friend, who is a few years older than I am, once admonished me for having a character in her mid-fifties struggle to rise from sitting on the floor. I’d thought this was realistic, since most people in my seniors’ gym class hoist themselves up awkwardly from the mats. Kudos to my friend for being able to leap to her feet.      

Look closely at the photo at the top of this post to see a group of seniors hiking. They’re specs on the landscape.