Guest Post: Disability and Aging
by Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin
Laurie: I blog with Debbie Notkin at “Body Impolitic” where we talk about body image issues in the broadest sense. I’m the mother of two daughters and I live in the Mission in San Francisco. I’ve published two books of my photographs: Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher).
Debbie: Along with my work with Laurie, I’ve has been an in-house and consulting editor of science fiction and fantasy at Tor Books. I help organize WisCon, the world’s first feminist science fiction convention,and I’m chair of the motherboard of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, supporting science fiction and fantasy that explore and expand gender. My day job is as a contracts manager for a nonfiction publishing company.
We were very pleased to be invited to blog about the intersection between aging and disability, in part because we think it’s a smaller intersection than is generally perceived.
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.
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.
Living in our bodies is a day-by-day, minute-by-minute experience. In our experience, and the experience of our friends who are our ages or older, aging does entail additional maintenance time and energy. More small things about our bodies need attention than they did 25 years ago. We go to doctors more often. We have more routine tests. We have excellent memories, but we lose words more often than we used to.
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.
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 distinction is so endemic in the culture that 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. One reason people disguise some of the things that happen to them as they age, just people who can sometimes disguise their disabilities, is that we are treated so differently in the world if we tell the truth about our bodies.
As fat activists, we’ve known for years that a fat person should always ask a doctor “What do you advise your thin patients with this condition?” Similarly, an older person should always ask a doctor, “What do you advise your young patients with this condition?”
Do disabled people experience the flip side of this stigma? Not being disabled ourselves, we can’t speak to that, but readers of this blog surely can. We’d like to know: Does being disabled sometimes get transformed into being treated as if you were aging? And if so, how does that work?
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.