By Joyce Wayne
Did you know that boomers born between 1946 and 1965 make up more than 25 percent of the Canadian population? I’m one of them, and that’s what drew me to a fascinating new book by Gillian Ranson, called Front-Wave Boomers Growing Older, Staying Connected and Reimagining Aging. When I saw the book’s title, I was interested immediately. We front-wave boomers are re-learning how to navigate growing older, both the challenges and the rewards, and for many, the learning curve is steep. Ranson researched and wrote this book in her seventies.
Those born in 1946 are now in their mid-seventies. For many, the mid-seventies are a time when we begin to slow down, be it for health concerns or the natural flow of life events. Most are no longer working full time, which means we have much more time to decide how to spend our days. Today my situation is also changing, and I need to find innovative ways to weather a new health condition while continuing with the activities, the social and solitary endeavours, I relish and that have made my retirement years such a pleasure.
As sociologist Gillian Ranson writes, “The baby boomers driving change are not like the generations of elders who preceded them into (very) old age. We are better educated. Our working lives have been spent in an increasingly information-based economy, so we bring different skills and experiences as we age. More significantly, we had fewer children, if we had them at all, and the geographic mobility shaping our children’s working lives often meant that family members are not close at hand.”
With the help of the media, the picture front-age boomers promoted is seen as a time to enjoy “successful aging.” We are encouraged to reframe or re-invent our careers. Reframing worked for me. I took early retirement from teaching at a college to writing full time, and the joy of writing and publishing two novels, countless blogs and literary essays keeps me fully engaged. A second career provided a sense of satisfaction that I didn’t experience in my pre-retirement working life.
The only caveat is that “successful ageing” might work for the lucky ones, according to Ranson, but “it excludes those with health problems and other disabilities, those who struggle financially, those whose families don’t fit conventional patterns or those in indigenous or other communities with quite different perspectives on what aging might look like.”
Ranson suggests what makes the actual difference as we grow older is our connections to people. Human relationships aren’t easy to maintain as we age in a society where views of old age are often condescending, if not unkind. As she writes, “Baby boomers are experiencing a lot of criticism. Ageism is all around us, and we often internalize it,” making us feel that we are not worthy of enjoying our lives into very old age.
The COVID pandemic became a case study for older Canadians in specific ways. We watched how thousands of residents of long-term care facilities perished due to unsafe conditions. In addition, those living in long-term care were isolated from family to reduce infection rates. The toll on the mental health of older people in isolation was enormous— although the resources to help with these issues remained scarce.
Ranson reminds us that “a kind of very old age” –the people living in congregate settings, like long-term care facilities, is not how almost 100 percent of front-wave boomers wish to live. We want to live safely and independently in our own homes for as long as possible. At the same time, no one I know wants to be lonely and isolated. As Ranson says, we want “agency and autonomy. And if we need care, we want it delivered by people who appreciate and value us worthy of care.”
As for me, I’m looking to continue to write my essays, blogs and books without pushing myself too hard. For Type A personalities like me, growing old usually means slowing down to some degree. That means taking health concerns seriously while discovering new strategies for being productive and engaged. It doesn’t mean living up to the media profiles that portray those lucky few running marathons and building companies in their nineties.
What it does mean is trying not to internalize ageism. Deeply rooted negative views about aging often make it difficult to age with dignity. Internalized ageism can influence everything from memory and sensory perceptions to how we walk, how fully we recover from illness and how long we live.
Let’s not try too diligently to live up to who we think we should be as we age and be who we actually are. Walk a little slower, sleep in a little longer, take the time to smell the roses and enjoy that extra chocolate. And lastly, try not to be too hard on yourself. Give that inner critic who keeps you up at night a rest. She deserves it.