“Do not go gentle into the night, old age burn …..and rage, ….rage, rage against the dying of the light”, poet Dylan Thomas couldn’t have described aging better.
What Thomas did not know, is that the pangs of his poetic line would relate more to aging women rather than men. Almost two thirds of those aging in the world, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) 2011 Annual Report says, are women and they do not experience the “golden years” of old age.
Instead, their woes are compounded by failing eyesight, loss of hearing, frequent illnesses and most debilitating of all loneliness — leading to disability. For many of them, growing older has become a feared time to endure, not to enjoy.
According to UNFPA, women, who tend to live longer than men, usually cope with the problems of aging alone, slowly getting into disability as their limited capacities diminish with age and the degree of independence they have achieved is jeopardized each day.
Coco Chanel, the high priestess of French fashion once said, “After forty five, a woman can no longer call herself young”. Indeed, midlife is a watershed in a woman’s existence–it is then that the spectre of aging with its possibilities of chronic illness, disability and decline comes into sharper focus.
The Fountain of Age by Betty Freidan, a feminist activist, says women with disabilities at the midlife transition period face the possibility of three-fold discrimination based on sex, disability and age.
Susan Holland wriing for the Greater London Asscition for the Diasabled (GLAD) Quarterly “Women, Disability and Ageing” said that “at midlife, pre-existence or sudden occurence of disability have ramifications for many women — from body issues, completing tasks of daily living, social interaction –to feelings about her status, new image, support system, physical environment and creative coping abilities.
When Growing Old Is Not Age of Wisdom
As years go by, aging women become especially prone to disabling disorders such as arthritis, osteoporosis, incontinence, diabetes, cancer, depression and paraphrenia.
But these are not all.
Kay Harris Kreigsman and Sue Gregman, authors “Women with Disabilities at Midlife” say the prolongation of life, also presents women additional threats such as giving up of social roles and relationships, increased social isolation, increased anxiety about income, and possible loss of health and possible incapacity.
These changes occur at a time when aging person’s resources may be rapidly declining and dependency increasing.
In the Philippines, where most aging women depend on their relatives for support because of strong family ties, rather than placed in homes of aging, caregiving can be considered a taxing endeavour, considering the comprehensive range of health care provided that the blood relatives can afford.
Yet, their situation, is much more “better” in a sense, than those in homes of the aged, considering that love, care, understanding and tolerance are much more felt when with love ones.
Psychologist Maria Elena Untalan of San Beda College, however, avers that more and more Filipino women are being left out in the cold — living alone, and lacking adequate support systems, because thousands of Filipinas are leaving the country to care for others, the irony being that they leave behind not only their children, but also mothers, to fend off for themselves.
These women tend to live in isolation and when they get ill, the treatment of physical and mental illnesses are more difficult, she added.
For many of them, getting old has is not an age of wisdom, she said.
Challenging the Image of Helplessness
The 2010 US Department of Health and Human Services publication ‘Women’s Health–Report of the Public Health Task Force on Women’s Health Issues reports that many elderly persons can manage successfully at home, if they are given appropriate services.
The problem is that, the medical profession has shown negative attitude towards the elderly.
The medical care in the United States and in some European countries, for instance, is characterized by negativism, defeatism, and professional antipathy. Sexist stereotypes influence the medical profession to believe that illness and discomfort in aging women are largely due to psychological origins, the report said.
On the other hand, aging women with certain problems that have psychological causes, such as loneliness and poor self-image, which do not need medical treatment, are often referred to health care services, it added.
Efforts are being made by many health professionals to nip this negativism in the bud. For example, a Gerontology Internship Program at Cornell University Medical College involves students in the daily lives of older patients.
Many day care centers also have adopted an approach where homemakers and home health services are carried out in the home by women skilled both as homemakers and care-givers.
But the need for long term care services will be greater as the years go on. UNFPA says those 85 years of age or older worldwide, will increase at the rate of ten per cent or greater every five years between 2010 to 2030. The projected need for increased long term care services is projected not only on the increased number of very elderly but also on the number of elderly having disabilities, most of whom will be women, it added.
And as the number of women aging increases, what matters will not be what age they reach but what can be done better to attend to ease the years of aging.