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Seniors: Late life on air

A group of older women are reclaiming their community’s voice, one broadcast at a time

Once a month, on a Wednesday night, two different groups of women on two opposite sides of the country press around microphones and chat. Though hosted by community radio stations based out of McGill and Simon Fraser Universities, these women aren’t students; they’re old ladies, many in their sixties and seventies, some in their eighties, and they’re using the microphone as a tool of empowerment.

For many, the 60-plus set exists as a group separate from the rest of society. They’re seen as fragile; they walk slower, their clothes are different, and they don’t keep up with hip things that younger generations know. This attitude can be attributed to the priorities of capitalist societies that evaluate their members according to their productivity, says Rose Marie Whalley, a founding member of CKUT’s Older Women Live (OWL), a collective that broadcasts monthly across Montreal. “In other societies [outside of North America], old people guide the young and pass down the culture, but in capitalist, or post-capitalist societies like ours, the status of old people is very low because we’re not productive. We are pushed to the margins of society. The culture of youth is the one that dominates.”

Whalley wants to challenge the ideals of an exclusionary culture that neglects old people, and let society – especially youth – know that the elderly still have a voice. With OWL, she and six other women from Montreal introduce society to someone she thinks it does not know: the active older woman. “I want to reclaim the word old,” she says. “I am not a senior.”

Most topics discussed on the show do not exclusively appeal to or describe an older demographic. The owls, as the women call themselves, avoid featuring stereotypical “old lady” topics like knitting, grandchildren, bridge, and the old days. Instead, they focus on stories with more expansive political or social appeal.

WEACT (Women Elders in Action), a similar radio program broadcast from Vancouver, also seeks to give a voice to older women. With an approach similar to OWL’s, WEACT works to integrate the social and economic issues facing older women into common discourse. Like OWL, WEACT focuses on topics that are political and topical – housing issues, security, local politics. “Our show is far more a political and a propos to the times than most students’ shows are,” says Jan Westlund, coordinator of WEACT. “Maybe it’s because we’re more connected to the community, or maybe it’s our breadth of experience.”

“Many older women, and [the women producing WE*ACT] are busy; they volunteer, they’re active, and it’s hard to keep them at home. Just because midlife and senior women appear to be somewhat invisible does not mean they’re not active. It just means society is not set up to acknowledge them and credit them,” Westlund says. Through showing that older women play a part in issues that affect everyone’s lives, both radio programs strive to break the stereotype of older women as useless, sexless, or burdensome to society.

In familiarizing their communities with older women, the members of OWL and WE*ACT also familiarize themselves with a part of contemporary culture that they grew up without – technology. For much of society, technological competency is an assumed luxury, but for older generations it’s often a mystery, and their illiteracy and lack of tech intuition is leaving them behind. “It’s a way of thinking, a mental process. It’s not just a matter of pressing buttons,” Whalley says.

For Westlund’s volunteers, mastery of the technical side of the radio programming has been slow. “I would say only a few of the women have really taken up the technical side of it seriously, and it’s really important when they do. It’s huge for seniors who do because they stimulate the brain.” Still, she says that half of the women involved, many of whom are in their eighties, have email and computers in their homes. OWL’s members communicate via email – all but one is hooked up.

WE*ACT has taken their initiative beyond radio broadcast. With a program called Lessons Learned, older women solicit and record stories of marginalized women in their communities. One of the project’s mandates is to stimulate and engage women who were facing the threat of isolation.

Mastery of technology is not important only in the tangible sense, but can communicate, according to Whalley, a tremendous symbolic significance. “As a generation, we have internalized the fact that we’re useless. Technology now has brought that home big time. The inability with technology is infused with a sort of stupidity and ignorance. What do we have to contribute? It adds to a general lack of self esteem in old people and does not help how we are seen in society – as unproductive,” Whalley says. “We need a voice of technology and we’re not getting that as a group.”

Programs like OWL and WE*ACT bring older women’s voices to places and audiences they could not travel to alone, giving them a voice they don’t feel they have, and a purpose they feel they’re not entitled to. “Not only do [older women] have a low status, but there is no way for us to say, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ Our voices are silent. We have internalized this, and if we continue to sit at home removed from the world progressing around us, we’re just going to become more and more invisible,” Whalley says.

Whalley believes radio may prove to be the only means to keep older people accessible to younger generations.

“We get into living rooms through radio,” Whalley says. The non-discriminatory nature of radio allows OWL to reach all audiences and welcomes anyone to participate. “Someone can be lying in bed and still hold a mic,” Whalley says. That’s what happened on OWL’s January show. The topic was access to healthcare under a Conservative government, and featured an interview with one of OWL’s collective members, an 85-year-old woman recovering from a knee replacement. She was in her bed at Lindsay Rehab centre in Côte-des-Neiges when Whalley conducted the interview.

OWL and WE*ACT stand up against the assumption that old people, and old women especially, do not work or perform physical activity. The idea of total retirement, not only professionally but in every aspect of one’s life, is unrealistic. At a time when an increasing number of people is staying healthier longer, older women are finding ways to not only be part of society, but to be an active part. “[Our members] are seniors who are not ready to dive into old age and still want to remain active in their communities,” Westlund says.

She notes that in old age, many find themselves with more free time and a renewed desire to contribute to and remain part of society. Having lived through the radical sixties and seventies, members of both programs are former activists – part of labour unions, social justice, and feminist movements. “Our generation was an activist generation. We certainly did women’s rights stuff, and civil rights stuff. We were very active in social experiments,” Whalley says, citing the Day Care Movement, when mothers in the seventies lobbied for cheap daycare services, and the Back-to-the-Land movement. “Doing all of this, it established a way of being, a way of life.”

Radio has become the new medium through which the activist generation can continue to demonstrate. “The women have been activists their whole lives and they have interest in lots of social justice issues. You do that for 30 or 50 years and you’re not stopping because your body is slowing down or because you’re tired. If anything, you have more time to devote to issues,” Westlund says.

Growing older doesn’t change the essence of a person and does not mean that they should sacrifice themselves. “You have no idea how active women in their sixties are,” Westlund says – and how relevant they are in our society.