Frailty is a feminist issue

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Germaine Greer has once again started a conversation that we need to have. The Australian feminist, author and academic declared that ‘Feminism is ageist and that the Abbott governments’ “attacks” on pensioners make aged care one of the most pressing feminist issues facing Australia today.’ Germaine Greer was speaking at the All About Women festival which was marking international women’s day at the Sydney Opera House in March. ‘Feminism,’ she added, ‘was like the media, ageist and focused on young women of reproductive age in relationships to the exclusion of children and the elderly.’

The realities of ageing are largely invisible. Ageing is terribly unsexy. Just as feminism rightly tackles the issue of male violence against women and that of body image, and applies its analyses and action to women, work and child care – similar action on issues of ageing for women are needed.

The columnist at The GuardianGaby Hinsliff  is on a similar mission. She says that ‘frailty is a feminist issue, or at least it damned well should be, and it’s amazing that we are not much, much angrier about it,’ she says. She writes:’We all prefer not to dwell on the prospect of getting old, helpless, humiliated by a body that is no longer under our control.’

Hinsliff is correct. We should be angrier about our looming frailty and the potential lack of care. Our energies are needed  to make sure that we don’t become frail too early. That means women must earn enough to be able to afford exercise classes, physiotherapy, supplements and healthy food.

As well as overcoming the shortage of elderly care both in the home and in residential care, and increasing the wages of aged care nurses who are the worst paid nurses in the system, there are those ‘end of life decisions’. Many feminists warn that women are likely to be abused if voluntary euthanasia ever becomes legal or commonplace. This may happen due to the nature of many women who don’t want to be a burden- for they know too well the realities of caring for older relatives and don’t want to trouble their daughters. And yet the ability to have control over one’s life and death is surely a right, especially if life is no longer worth living and often as not spent in pain.

Dr Karen Hitchcock’s Quarterly Essay Dear life: On Caring for the Elderly is a moving and controversial account of the treatment of the elderly and dying and an essay which continues the theme started by Germaine Greer. Hitchcock is a staff physician in acute and general medicine at a large city public hospital who writes: “Ours is a society in which ageism, often disguised, threatens to turn the elderly into a “burden”. She says we must plan for a future where more of us will be old. This is the reality and Hitchcock argues for that time to be better than it is now.

“The elderly, the frail are our society. They are our parents and grandparents, our carers and neighbours, and they are every one of us in the near future… They are not a growing cost to be managed or a burden to be shifted or a horror to be hidden away but people whose needs require us to change.”

Germaine Greer continues the conversation when she presents at a conference on Women and Ageing: New Cultural and Critical Perspectives at the University of Limerick  in May this year. This conference will engage with the symbolic aspects of women and ageing in culture and society, and the power these constructions exert over public and private conceptions of old age.

For discussion: What types of images of the “ageing woman” are created in cultural texts? Do women in later life, in order to become visible, need to find ways to “pass” as younger so that “age shall not wither them” as Kira Cochraine puts it in an article in The Guardian? Are these legitimate strategies or should women embrace the menopause as a new phase of life and liberation as advised by Germaine Greer? What impact do dominant representations of ageing women have on the sociocultural realities of women in their later years? And in what ways do they compare to earlier representations?

Sounds fascinating!

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