A couple of weeks ago I was invited to address a special event in honour of International Women’s Day at the Seniors Centre in St. Marys, Ontario. My topic? Women and Aging and Resilience. I identified several women I have known who exhibited tremendous resilience as they aged.
These women all defied the notion that aging is a disease, a problem that must be fixed. As the great Catholic spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once said, “There is the temptation to make aging into the problem of the elderly and to deny our basic human solidarity in this most human process.” The feminist Betty Friedan once commented that the discrimination from which she suffered in her early days because she was a woman was nothing compared to the prejudices she faced as an older woman. She blamed this on the tendency of professionals, scholars, social service workers, clergy, and politicians to view elderly people as “problems to be solved.”
I don’t think it will be a surprise to you when I say that as women we continue to experience a double jeopardy – sexism and ageism. And of course, if you are a person of colour, or lesbian or bi-sexual or trans, or if you are differently abled, then those jeopardies are multiplied and compounded.
So what to do? Well, I think there are lessons we can learn from the stories of resilient women we have known that can help us to break the bias and combat the challenges women face as we age. I believe that we can all learn to develop resilience by practising five simple steps that I will highlight in my blog over the coming weeks.
First, what is resilience? Think about people who are able to bounce back from hard times. You’ve known people like this. They may have suffered some tragedy or major setback in life and they’re down for a while; but then somehow they manage to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again. They bounce back. Feminist theologians Janet Ramsey and Rosemary Blieszner write that, resilience “implies an ability not only to cope with traumatic difficulties, but also to respond with flexibility under the pressures of everyday life. People who are resilient have the ability to move beyond being survivors to being thrivers.” They quote the author Ursula Estes who says that resilient women are like “tough little plants” who manage to send out brave little leaves anyway. Estes wrote of women who, their bad times behind them, put themselves into “occasions of the lush, the nutritive, and light” where they could “flourish, and thrive with busy, shaggy, heavy blossoms and leaves.”
Today I invite you to take some time to reflect upon the resilient women you have known. What was it that gave them the power to bounce back from challenging or difficult situations? What enabled them to “keep on keeping on” when others might easily have thrown in the towel? Make a list of the traits or characteristics that spring to mind when you think of these women and note their beliefs and practices too.
These resilient women are all around us. They are ordinary people we encounter everyday in life. They are women from whom we can each learn so much!