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Older Women Are Feminism’s New Mentors

I know that an assisted living facility would not look as the cradle of feminism or the women’s liberation movement. Usually, these facilities are sprinkled with a few older women and men in rapid decline, some others who still are feisty and engaged, and others between these two categories. Most of the time, these places are covered with the veil of home-away-from home, and a hectic pace of activities and things that need to be done. One day, in the swirl of this rapid tempo, I met Laura. Laura was a 75 year-old woman, with a nice southern accent, who was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, high risk for falls, and incontinence, and who has been at the residential care facility for almost two years. In the middle of the lobby, Laura, with a very firm voice, was ordering one of the employees, to look for her cat that has been lost for most of the day. Trying to be helpful, I approached Laura and introduced myself and offered her to help with her cat search. After few actions addressed to find the cat, I invited Laura for a tea. Never would I have thought that what was about to unfold was going to be quite so interesting and thought provoking.  After telling Laura that she seemed that one of the very spirited older women in the facility, she commented that “Once a fighter, always a fighter…” Curious about the meaning of her statement, I asked her what fights she has fought and then, a rather unusual conversation started that was to stir some ideas in my mind about feminism. When asked about her week and what the highlights of the week were, Laura’s face beamed and she said that she looked forward to meeting with a couple of interns and volunteers coming to the facility to work on some activities. Laura was not to keen to what these younger people’s agendas actually were, yet she was very appreciative of the fact of them listening to her stories. She said in a eloquent way, “They really want to know, to learn from the past and my experiences. They ask, I answer. They want to hear about struggles and conquests of older women.” Although Laura was not exactly the “older version” that I had in my mind of a feminist, her stories of the battles for civil rights, equality, and women’s rights in the late 1960s and 1970s, resonated to my knowledge and first hand-experience of feminism. Her tale made me think of what is next for aging women, in a world that does not take well aging. A world that is plagued with ageism and sexism.  She was presenting a shift of the feminist paradigm from liberation to mentoring, and she opened a door into meaningful opportunities for these ”aging women” into their later years.

From Crone to Mentor: A New Role for Older Women in Later Years

Seldom do we question how the women’s movement has affected women of age, those women who took what they learned as activists in the civil-rights movement and applied it to rampant sexism. That phase of the women’s movement spawned two generations of equal rights, abortion rights, lesbian and gay rights, anti-ageism, and AIDS activists; a devoted, beleaguered army of caretakers of abused women and children in the shelter movement; and labor groups such as the CLUW and Women in the Trades. To name only a few “special-interest” groups. Elderly women today face different challenges, some triggering deep, personal questions—namely, what is their role as they age? Reproduction is no longer a goal; nor is raising children. If they had a career, it is in the past, or nearly so. Other traditional caregiver roles—parenting the grandchildren, caring for a husband or other family members—are still available, but this new identity may be difficult to bear. The “aging” woman, with her dry skin and wrinkled body, is no longer regarded as pretty, sexy, vital, or accomplished; she is in her “dimmed time.” Jean Shinoda Bolen has said that “In a youth-oriented patriarchy, especially, to become an older woman is to become invisible: a nonentity.”
What’s the future for this woman? What role should older women play in our society? What, if anything, is the role of feminists, activist women?
As Laura expressed when talking about “the highlight of her week,” perhaps we could create that new role where these fighters pass the baton; build a bridge to new generations of feminists, our sisters who still have a long road ahead of fighting for equality and identity. We need to find a way from which all generations of advocates of feminism can gain a way to replace the schism between “generations” with an understanding of scales. This will require a deep understanding of difference and especially, in this case, the marker of age as that difference. Younger generations are interested in how growing old has affected the perspective of older women who’ve struggled for decades with language-embedded sexism and rampant ageism in our culture.

Ageing Feminists – Who Are We Now?

Within the baby-boomer crowd, we find three different “generations”—those born in the mid-1940s, the mid-1950s, and the early 1960s. All three find themselves lost in the battlefield. Members of the first generation, especially, often discouraged by the meager results of the equal-rights “victory,” have difficulty empowering themselves and their sisters. Weary of trying to raise others’ awareness, seeing their self-esteem slip away, they can’t help questioning, yet again, who they are. Battling their own dependency issues, they now consider retirement—and what do they see? Living 20, 30, 40 years on the edges of society, without an audience interested in their experiences, knowledge or wisdom.

Mentors, Sages, Baton-Carriers

Following Laura’s first impressions, I have interviewed hundreds of older women who have stressed the importance of becoming mentors, sages, to help younger women meet their needs. One of them has said, “It’s not about me as an individual, anymore … I’ve done whatever I can to express my individuality, develop my personal self, now I want to contribute to the well-being of my daughters … and the Earth.” Others have remarked that the aging phase is a prime time to reinvent ourselves, to use the still-formidable energy of our mature years with compassion and wisdom. There is, after all, a difference between growing old and growing into an elder.
To become an elder takes work and a willingness to struggle continuously for awareness.
This struggle for awareness demands a relentless engagement with life and its constantly emerging challenges.

The Depth of Older Women’s Wisdom

Women need to understand that along with a left-brain linear intelligence, they also possess a deeper intelligence, more creative and respectful of life. Some call it intuition, but it is really a kind of an emotional intelligence, a spiritual force allowing those who have it to deal with both the quotidian and the divine. Imagine a world in which the wisdom and power of aging Goddesses guides us through our next challenges, with the shared goal of building a global village that is tolerant, nonviolent, and life affirming. It is time for all older women to tap into their wisdom, and guide people on a journey of healing and transformation. We need this for ourselves, and for the planet. It is time to nourish the soul, to mentor our daughters and sisters, and, at last, to regard our aging selves in a celebratory light.  

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Doris BersingOlder Women Are Feminism’s New Mentors

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