Interview w/Sharon Butala on Ageism


 Of the various "isms" that currently dominate our national conversations, ageism has yet to raise its profile to the level of sexism and racism. Award-winning Saskatchewan author, Sharon Butala, thinks that reality may be changing. Her recent article, "Against Ageism" for The Walrus triggered at least a half-dozen follow-up radio interviews, allowing her to raise consciousness on the subject. Butala admits to being in total shock when old age hit. Getting old was something that happened to other people! Outright denial was her go-to coping mechanism.

The place of the elderly in an age that worships youthfulness is at best, ambiguous. Now in her late 70s, Butala has made ageism her cause. She identifies "staggering ageism everywhere we turn" and says it's time "for all of us, the young and the old, to create a new framework with which to view older adults." However, Butala hasn't found much material to inform a new framework or to counter ageism in North America or the British Isles, so she's posed a few ideas of her own to help each of us become agents of change. One is to blend the demographic spectrum by having elderly people become more a part of the lives of children. "Once the nuclear family came into existence, the elderly were shuttled off somewhere else and weren't a part of the everyday life of the children," says Butala. Elderly people who are friendly, helpful and affectionate and could be looked up to, ought to be in schools as volunteers. "From the time they're tiny, children would become very familiar with the elderly as human beings, not just as these distasteful spectres they see hobbling down the street who are kind of frightening to them."

Another change is to ensure the elderly are well represented in the board rooms of the nation where decisions are made, says Butala. Every governing body or any agency, whether municipal or provincial or federal government or NGOs should have elderly people on the board with equal status to everyone else on the board. Misplaced ageist humour also needs to be addressed. When somebody makes a joke about old people on television, on the radio or in print, that person should be called out, Butala says. "I'm not talking about ranting and raving and name calling, but simply saying, when you told this joke you denigrated all old people. It's not as funny as you think because it's very hurtful."

She likens this to the old consciousness-raising days of the second wave of feminism. "People were calling mostly men all the time on their sexist attitudes and behaviours." Women became intentional about gathering in small groups and raising each other's consciousness about the sexism they lived with, mostly in their own homes and marriages. "They called out the attitudes that nobody noticed, that everybody took for granted.

The same thing is true about ageism. We have to take on that responsibility as individuals to raise everybody's consciousness. We have to get braver and point out to the media these things." For Butala, one of the worst offenders in recent memory was a young woman on CBC radio who said how "disgusting" it was that after her grandma died, the family found tissues tucked into many articles of her clothing. "I wanted to leap into the radio and do something ill-mannered, possibly even illegal to her," says Butala. If Butala finds growing old terrifying, she also finds it wonderful. "For me it's been a most gratifying and satisfying experience."

Old age has given her greater freedom to express herself and less concern about offending others. She stays active by walking anywhere from two to six kilometres almost every day. Mindfulness seems a natural development in old age. "It's way better to live in the moment because of course, your future isn't going to be so great. You won't be building a new house. You don't lie around dreaming of the great things that are going to happen. You enjoy the moment so much more than you ever could before." Being in the moment was helpful when Butala's new short story collection arrived.

"I woke up one morning and the first short story and the ideas were just there in my head." The others followed similarly in an almost unbroken flow. "Season of Fury and Wonder" launched in early May in Calgary where she now resides. Each story is inspired by a literary giant Butala encountered as an undergrad –writers like Poe, Chekhov, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Willa Cathers, James Joyce and others. The book is about the condition of being old and every protagonist is an old woman. Butala says she couldn't have written it until now, another perk of her advanced years. It's her fourth collection and twentieth book. Butala says its time to stop treating senior citizens as a burden. "I really think its important that we bring the elderly back into society." Is it too much to imagine that society might one day 'worship' its elders?

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