Ideally, I would like to respond to this piece on the blog that originally posted it, FWD/Forward... but (sigh) I don't think that is too likely to happen.* I will instead post my reply here.
I believe the topic is extremely important (indeed, my incessant yowling may be one reason why there is a post on this topic in the first place) and I think more input, rather than less, is necessary and crucial for understanding.
FWD asked two older women to blog on the topic of disability and aging, Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin. Edison and Notkin work in publishing, are quite well-traveled, and live in what is possibly the most expensive city in the USA. I hope I don't have to make the obvious point that women with multiple published books to their credit are not typical older women; I assume they are well-educated and do not need to do hard physical work to live. For example, Edison's Wikipedia entry tells us: "Her family intended her for the academic intelligentsia." I will assume from this statement that Edison does not make her living standing on her feet all day (waitresses, nurses, retail) or doing continuous repetitive movements (factory, farm or garment workers). However, such work is the reality for most people in the world. And so, when I read the following, I get a bit confused:
We are 67 and 58, respectively, and both of us are able-bodied, and active. Not because “70 is the new 50″ but because our bodies work just fine.And of course, this is fairly typical for women of their class, which is a very, very small percentage of the world's population. (Note: I used to type Workman's Comp claims, thousands and thousands of them, from everywhere, and I have never heard of an artsy-photographer making a Workman's Comp claim.)
My question: Why ask two older women who are proudly able-bodied to talk about disability and aging? I mean, shouldn't FWD maybe talk to women who identify as older and disabled? (This is a puzzling choice, unless it's because they don't know any other older women to ask to guest-blog, which is entirely likely.)
And let me be clear--Edison and Notkin's experience is interesting and vital, it's just that they seem to have decided that their experience is true for the remaining 95% of the world's population:
The stereotypical intersection between aging and disability is the cultural expectation that they are the same thing. Whether people are saying “After 40, it’s patch, patch, patch” or just looking surprised if a woman over 50 lifts a 50-pound box, the common assumption is that age and disability are irretrievably linked, just as youth and ability are perceived to be irretrievably linked. While 75-year-old marathon runners and charmingly fragile disabled teenagers both show up as role models, old people who walk to the grocery store and people in their young 20s who are frequently unable to leave their homes because of chronic pain are equally invisible.Minor?
These things, however, are not disabilities. Conflating age and disability is not only dishonest about the realities of aging, it is also disrespectful of the realities of disability. We can both go where we want to go, and get in to the buildings or transit vehicles when we get there. Neither of us is in the kind of pain (physical or mental) that keeps us from living able-bodied lives. To describe our minor aging issues as disabling would be to undercut and undervalue the real disabilities that people live with every day.
In the health-supplement retail-business, it is not uncommon for me to meet working-class southerners and Latina immigrants under 30 who already have extensive job-related health problems. In fact, I don't know anyone who doesn't have these issues. My first varicose vein was at age 24. If you work hard all of your life, you will wear out. This is a GIVEN; it is a FACT. It's true for cars, for furniture, for roads, for televisions, for shoes, for umbrellas. It is equally true for people. There is simply no way you can bend a joint over and over a million times, and not have it wear out, just like your tires. After it wears out, it ceases to function, and it is... DISABLED.
Most people in the world must work hard to sustain life. I am not an exception; I am the mainstream. Therefore, most people, when they get old, have bodies that have worn out to the point of sustaining actual damage, yet they/we must function anyway, often in a great deal of pain. We are not as lucky as photographers who have published books. And hey, I don't mind if you are lucky enough to be exempt from hard work, but do not proclaim that your life is typical, when it simply is not. Your aging issues are "minor" because of the life you have been privileged enough to lead. The rest of us? Not so privileged. For most people in the world, aging is a painful process, and the process can start pretty early, depending on the kind of work they must do. (And their example is quite telling: No one looks "surprised" if I lift a 50-lb box, since I do it several times a day, every day. They look surprised on those days that I can't do it, actually.)
And so, we have older women blogging on aging and disability who start out by bragging about their good health, and then inform us that those little "minor" aging issues (!) are not important enough to be labeled disabilities. However, most working-class people around the world are not as fortunate and have always been required to do hard work.
Thus, MOST old people in the world become disabled. It is simply unavoidable.
Edison and Notkin continue:
At the same time, the stigma of aging (which is partially fear of death and partially the culture’s definition that beauty must be youthful) puts a disturbing spin on diseases and conditions which are associated with aging. If someone over 60 has mild to moderate arthritis, almost everyone (including her) will view it as evidence of her body’s degeneration and eventual demise, while if someone under 40 has mild to moderate arthritis, it will be just something she has to live with, and not evidence that she’s falling apart.This is another deeply classist comment. I've always known I was falling apart (arthritis diagnosed at age 37), since I know that my arthritis was caused by overuse of those particular parts of my body. Most working-class people know that osteoarthritis (as opposed to rheumatoid arthritis) just comes with the territory, and fully realize it's a matter of WHEN, not IF, they should develop it. You simply can not wait tables for decades on a hard-tiled floor and not get arthritis/varicose veins/foot problems/etc.
The next time you go to a store or restaurant or Starbucks**, please be aware of the ages of the people who work there. You will notice a cut-off point (usually between 40-50) and very few visibly-old people will be employed there. What happened to them? Did they all just decide to quit? No, they WORE OUT. These jobs are ROUGH, and after a certain point, they become almost impossible. Older workers have to make the decision, at some juncture, to transition out... or apply for disability.
Edison and Notkin:
[One] of the major medical problems with aging is that people expect their aches and pains to be permanent, and thus don’t address them.If they are due to the body wearing out, then the aches and pains ARE permanent. Degeneration of joints, tissues and organs is not reversible.
Edison and Notkin wind up:
It comes down to rejecting stereotypes: the two stereotypes of aging are the ever-increasing decrepitude and incapacity on the one hand and the cheerful, active grandparents in the Depends commercials on the other hand. Like stereotypes of disability, or of women, or of people of color, these are not true. The truth is much more layered, complicated, and different for every individual.The truth is that most people in the world work very hard to earn a living, and for even longer hours than we work here in the USA. Immigrants tell me of their earlier lives in countries with no labor laws and no days off, ever. The Latino workers doing construction adjacent to my apartment complex, tell me of the copious "aches and pains" that they must work through, or risk deportation. The women who work in the textile mills tell me of their co-workers' first mesothelioma symptoms (often manifesting obscenely early in life)... and they worry, rightly, that they could be next.
For the working classes, aging MEANS disability. Period. They are synonymous. There is simply no way that one can work at physical labor for 5-6 decades without the body showing extensive signs of wear.
There is nothing in this world exempt from this rule.
On another note, it is thoroughly dismaying to me that a blog supposedly about feminism and disability, would bring in two older able-bodied feminists to authoritatively proclaim that aging and disability are unrelated, when for the majority of women in the world, this is not the case.(???) I can only surmise that FWD is not addressed to the majority of women in the USA or the world, and is basically directed to educated feminists of the professional-classes, a very small minority. And that's okay, but please be aware that the reality you describe (women of 58 and 67 who are relatively free of all signs of wear and tear), is not the experience of most older women in the world.
*As I said in this post, I have been banned from FWD for reasons never explained to me. I attempted to post three separate comments back on 11/18, all censored. Consequently, not bothering with that anymore.
**Starbucks seems to only hire people under 30 or so; I think it's an unwritten rule of some kind.