My grandfather taught me to swim without knowing how to swim himself. One day I remembered it and wrote the story on social media. Comments appeared immediately: “Grandparents are the best”, “Grandparents are the host.” Or directly: “Oh, grandparents…”. My hair stood on end. It was, in a way, as if history and grandfather were stolen from me. My grandfather was a person, not a member of an urban tribe with identical characteristics. Sometimes he was adorable, other times he was a bully, like you and I probably are.
I loved my grandparents very much, but sweetening them seems unfair to who they were: complex people, full of contradictions, sometimes selfish, other wonderful and corrosively funny, sometimes wise, sometimes foolish. Like everyone. Placing the old in that kind grandpa stereotype is the same as assuring that if it were up to women there would be no wars, or that people with intellectual disabilities are angels, children are all innocent, people of color or from a country that sounds foreign enough to us, very noble (a supposedly anti-racist classic that remains) or very funny gays. Idealizing any collective under a dome of kindness is adding a lot of sugar to a concoction that tastes weird so you can swallow it anyway.
Marta D. Riezu says in her book soap and water (Anagrama, 2022), that the philosopher Gregorio Luri wrote that the old “are allowed to be endearing figures, but not of authority.” It is one of the few references that I find in which ageism (discrimination based on age) is related to a forced benevolent treatment.
If we search for more examples, we find another negatively encompassing agent: the widespread habit of calling grandfather either grandmother to any old person not related to us. At first glance, this word seems like a happy shortcut to avoid the old either old or the showy old people. Elena del Barrio, researcher and co-director of Matia, a non-profit foundation that accompanies people in their aging process, points out the tendency to refer to the old as retired. “These types of names” —says Elena— “deprive of identity, they refer to people based on their relationship with the production system or the family”. She also points out the reductionist of the term grandfather: “And when people don’t have a family environment? Or when they are not grandparents? It’s like we call mother to all women: a limitation of identity”.
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I can already imagine hordes of sweet people getting indignant: “Why would it be bad to say that grandmas are adorable?” It’s hard to get rid of the bad when it doesn’t seem like it at all (how many still congratulate March 8 as if it were a joyous carnival of femininity?). But this soft divinization of the old is the best unconscious trap we use to avoid taking seriously people who are of an age that we will all —hopefully— get to have. Coming as we do from these years of covid, in which exclusion protocols from various Spanish communities caused the death of so many old people, living through a health crisis that inevitably leaves them aside, this sweetening is a mockery.
Anna Freixas (author of me, old, Captain Swing) defines his book as “survival notes” or “resistance proposals”, and vindicates the old word. “I do it to destigmatize her. We want to raffle a word that is part of life”. Freixas assures that pronouncing it is the only way to erase the negative stigma of him.
But what would be the original explanation of ageism, beyond capitalism (you don’t work, you don’t produce, you don’t serve, and therefore I invalidate you)? In the studio of Gerard Quinn and Israel Doron Against age discrimination and towards active social citizenship for the elderly It is explained that, contrary to what happens with sexism or racism, in which the difference with respect to the discriminated person operates, in the case of ageism we find the opposite: a very common point. We will all be old and die. Few things are as globalizing as this. Quinn and Doron discuss TMT (Terror Management Theory; conceptualized by social psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski), which explains our tendency to cling to ideologies, values, and culture, and reject those who they challenge in situations that remind us of our mortality. And what greater reminder can there be than that of a person who seems to be closest to her? One of the ways to manage this terror is the explicit rejection of the old. It occurs to me that the other, hidden by a dense veil, could be this bath of sweetness that spills over into stupidity. Said the writer and editor Weldon Penderton in the hangover podcast that the “clowning” of some negatively perceived groups responds to a money laundering system. “Simply put: to stop perceiving yourself as a monster, they turn you into a clown,” Weldon explains. A dehumanization disguised as humanization to face terror. “The youngster is afraid of this machine that is going to catch him, sometimes he tries to defend himself with cobblestones (…)”, says Simone de Beauvoir in old age (1970, Gallimard). The sweetening of old age is a cobblestone thrown as if it were a flower given away on March 8.
This is not a reproach, it is a call to review ourselves here too. To be aware that all this cheap sweetness is a cleared path for the non-old person to easily walk on. The ideal shortcut to not deal with the otherness of the other. Idealizing an individual by adapting him to the clonal stereotype that he has been given is like that requirement of a unique woman that Lucía Lijtmaer spoke of. It is not a reproach, I repeat: it is a call to a kind of Old Pride. In fact, it exists. As a result of the age discrimination that occurred around the covid, the social movement of anti-ageism, gerontoactivism or antiageism arose. Just as “putting on purple glasses” became popular, let’s visualize a kind of “old glasses”, with which to look at each old woman separately.
I have ever posted on Instagram a poem that I found scribbled on the back of my grandmother’s notebook, with the classic consequences: “Oh, the grannies…”. The poem goes like this: “The geranium: I like it for its color and its beauty / Food: I hate it because of the can it gives me, but I couldn’t live without it / A wall: throw it, jump over it or shit on it”. My grandmother sometimes treated you like a geranium. Others, like a wall.
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