Eileen Kramer is reinventing aging. The 102-year-old dancer and artist is working on a new ballet and plans to perform it in November — with a walking stick, if necessary.
“I aim to be walking properly because there is nothing wrong with me except my balance,” she said.
Kramer is one of a growing number of older Australians who have decided to do aging differently, busting through the stereotypes that say that people retire, apply for a pension, downsize to an apartment, then move to a retirement village to play cards and then shuffle off to a nursing home to quietly die.
Instead, we are seeing more older people switch to new careers in their 60s, become entrepreneurs, throw themselves into creative endeavors, chase adventure in travel and investigate new forms of communal living, where they remain in charge and avoid the humiliation of the institutional 5:30pm dinners of soft foods and cordial.
Kramer is the ambassador for the non-profit Arts Health Institute and has a 75-year international career that, most recently, included a role in the Belvoir production of the Wizard of Oz; appearances in music videos and a collaboration on a fashion project.
“Always make the opportunity for yourself or else grasp the opportunity,” Kramer told a forum in Sydney on confronting ageism.
When asked if she believes herself to be old, Kramer said: “I don’t use the word ‘old.’ I say I have been on the planet a long time. If you are doing creative work, you are absolutely ageless. There is no such thing as age in creativity. It is always something new.”
Institute chief executive Maggie Haertsch said creativity has beneficial effects on health and quality of life in older people.
“Arts play a really significant role in building a person’s quality of life. I think that ability to keep learning and learning something new should never be underestimated, no matter what your capability is,” she told the forum.
A study of 60,000 older people by National Taiwan University found that those who took part in a creative — performance and art — program had lower rates of loneliness and depression, higher morale and improved hand dexterity.
There are 3.57 million people aged 65 and over in Australia and, by 2056, they might comprise about a quarter of the population.
While the numbers create a powerful bloc, that has not yet resulted in an opening up of the employment market for mature-aged workers or the retreat of ageism.
It takes an average of 68 weeks for someone aged over 55 to find a job.
The lack of employment options could be one reason that 34 percent of young firms in Australia are led by senior entrepreneurs (55 to 64 years), which is a higher activity rate than average.
Cofounders of the profit-for-purpose consultancy The Ageing Revolution, Leonie Sanderson and Simon Lowe, have found that it is not only young people who hold unhelpful and untrue views about their elders.
The couple took a three-month fact-finding trip last year, interviewing “grey nomads” and mature-aged people around Australia and discovered that many people were discriminating against their own age group.
“We are all hopefully going to grow old so why are we prejudicing our future lives?” Sanderson asked.
“The negative beliefs about aging are all around us. Even things like birthday cards have terms like ‘over the hill,’ ‘one foot in the grave’ or ‘God’s waiting room,’” she said.
“There are even beauty regimens to combat aging from when you are in your 20s, hair dye to cover up your grey hair. It is like we are trying to erase any talk or discussion of aging in our society at all, instead of focusing on the opportunities that come with growing older,” Sanderson said. “The discrepancy between these beliefs and how older people actually are is the most amazing thing.”
On their road trip, Sanderson and Lowe had no shortage of grey nomads to interview. There are about 80,000 on the roads in Australia at any one time.
The Ageing Revolution aims to work with companies and start-ups to codesign and develop ideas and products, such as an app to help carers, Lowe said.
Haertsch said the process of internalizing ageism starts before people even hit middle age.
“There comes a point in your life where you are somewhat ashamed, or embarrassed, or insecure about talking about your age. I hazard a guess it might be around the age of 30,” she said. “What happens is this internalized ageism is incredibly serious, because it also plays out in areas where we do our work — which is in aged care and, particularly, residential aged care,” Haertsch said.
“We find that some of the self-limiting age beliefs actually stop people flourishing. People don’t realize that they keep learning. Even if you have some form of cognitive impairment, such as dementia, you can keep learning,” she added.
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