For most of us, “old” is an adjective that applies to people one or two generations older than ourselves. Yet at some point, middle age sneaks up and grabs us with a World Wrestling Entertainment-approved submission hold, and just won’t let go.
Some hints that you might be there:
1. Newly-out baby dykes – usually eager to recognize anyone else even remotely queer – stop giving you a nod or smile of fellowship;
2. You suddenly enter the ‘tween generation – your parents have gone from “old” to “little old” (and when, exactly, did that happen?!?), and your pets suddenly require geriatric care (Tell me again why my dog doesn’t get OHIP?);
3. You start attending dinner parties. Even worse, you realize that the host’s 10-year-old is “hiding” at the top of the stairs to listen because they view you as one of their parent’s eccentric grown up friends – just the same way you did when you were 10.
Then there’s the big sign: starting to think more and more frequently about what a good idea it would be if someone created theme-concept retirement homes – and didn’t just place the nearest golf course within golf cart range of the front door.
Where are the queer retirement homes? Why can’t my parents – avid readers of science fiction and fantasy all their lives – find a care facility where every Friday the staff dress up as Star Trek characters, and the large-print book library is stocked with Heinlein, Norton, Zimmer Bradley, Asimov (RIP, all) and other great writers? What about those who believe that constant learning is the way to stave off mental decay? Shuffleboard and knitting in front of the soap operas just aren’t good enough: they want non-fiction book clubs so they can discuss ideas, and subscriptions to the International Herald Tribune and the Economist so they can keep track of what’s going on in the countries they were posted to while working for CIDA, the UN or the Foreign Service.
Watching our parents enter into the scary new world of “little old” raises another spectre for those of us who chose the non-breeder route. Who will be there for us when we make that transition? Strategically speaking, as a just post-baby-boom kid, I figure all of you baby-boomers out there will have figured this out for me by the time it’s my turn. But given the other mistakes your demographic made, I can’t be quite certain.
Anyone who’s experienced health care recently can testify that it’s scarily obvious how necessary it is to have advocates who can handle doctors and nurses when the patient is too ill to advocate for herself. It’s very clear in my family that without mother being willing to spend eight to 10 hours a day in the hospital with father, he’d have been worm food many years ago. It’s also pretty clear that with no one able to take that role in D’s family, her father’s death from lung cancer was both sooner and more painful than it needed to be.
The statistics on iatrogenic disease and death are scary. Every government decision that boils down to fewer healthcare workers in fewer and more underfunded institutions means overworked, overtired staff dealing with outdated systems and making more mistakes that can kill people – as my father would have been killed on several occasions if my mother hadn’t been able to step in to say that something was going wrong.
All of a sudden, queer friendships begin to seem more essential – and friendships with younger folk even more so. Lesbians and gay men discovered depths of care-giving ability during the peak of the (first?) North American AIDS epidemic. We created structures for shared care-giving to try to soften the effect of burnout (all too visible among people of my mother’s generation caring for aging partners). We lobbied for medical care when health and public officials were more concerned with quarantine than care. And then lobbied again for better medical care when our friends were allowed into hospital beds, but only as untouchable pariahs who could be allowed to develop bed sores or lie in filth since staff would not help them move.
Lesbians became bitter in the ’90s as the depth of mutual assistance and funding was clearly not available in the (so-called) lesbian and gay community for women with cancer. Now our community is theoretically bigger, encompassing sufficient differing orientations and gender transgressors that I’m unwilling to start naming us all for fear of the backlash if one group is left out.
But this new enemy – age – is also bigger and more deadly. With no exceptions, those of us who do not die young, or kill ourselves, will die eventually of age.
Strangely enough, none of that leaves me perky with hope. HIV kills older people too, yet it is the paradigmatic “young victim” over whom tears are shed. At age 30 or 40, cancer is a tragedy; at 70 or 80, well, you were dying anyway….
Perhaps the incredible “Me” focus of the boomers will transcend age-related fatalism. On the other hand, the large billboard offering Botox to “even the playing field” for men in the Church St area of Toronto is a reminder that boomers seem to be far busier denying age than working to ameliorate its inevitable sting.
So if you suddenly see me (a confirmed admirer of the older woman) hanging out in bars attempting to pick up women half my age (another sign of middle age, when you can say that, mean it literally and not be doing anything illegal), it is not because I’ve become a chicken hawk. Nope, I’m just trying to find someone to look after me in my old(er) age.