Age, Finally, Got Some (COVID) Respect, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
It is a small step, but the kind of mindfulness and consideration about age displayed by grocery stores and pharmacies must be commended. In spite of the vanities and denials of a youth-glorifying society, it shows that some humanity and care for old age still lies somewhere. In the end, if we are lucky, we will all get there if we get there.
Aging in this society is considered a dreadful thing, a misfortune to be avoided at all costs. Hair dyes, skin creams, plastic surgeries are some of the arsenals used to repel the inevitable. They are deployed to trick oneself and others that a person on the other side of forty or fifty is just as good looking, healthy, muscular (if a man), or seductive like their long-gone twenty-year-old self. It is one of the cultural norms I found peculiar when I first arrived on these shores several decades ago. A dear friend of mine, a native of this land, whose highly accomplished sister was turning forty informed me of this birthday. I asked him excitedly if his sister was going to have a big birthday party. She was one of the rare women for whom all ducks were fabulously lined in a row. She was married to a powerhouse husband, and they were blessed with a child. She herself had one of the most enviable appointments in the world in the rarefied world of elite academy. It was a cause for celebration. To my surprise, my dear friend spontaneously said, “who is going to celebrate such a horrible thing?” I was too stunned to give any adequate response.
This experience was far from my own cultural training and expectation. Old age was a part of normal prayers, to grow old to be able to accomplish one’s purpose in life. In old age resides wisdom and experience, which is called upon by younger generations to illuminate the way, especially when problems arise. Very early, the age hierarchy establishes itself among children. As the oldest child, I learnt quickly and sometimes painfully, especially through parental training, that I had a certain authority over my younger siblings, as well as responsibilities. Advancing years bring more prestige. As you honour and revere older people, younger ones do the same to you.
In those early days, as a new immigrant here, I was especially scandalised to see teenagers and children calling elderly people by their first names. Old age is generally ridiculed and thought to be a thing of shame. One day, on a long line in a store, I asked the elderly lady behind me to go ahead of me, and she gracefully accepted and thanked me. To my utter surprise, my son, who was quite young then, expressed discomfort with this act of mine, which I considered appropriate. As we stepped outside the store, he said I called attention to her age, saying he would feel uncomfortable if anyone did that to him. It was another stunning moment of culture clash, this time with my child, to whom I thought I was impacting my Yoruba attitude of reverence for old age. He was obviously absorbing the American cultural norms in this regard.
To protect older people, grocery stores enacted some policies. People over sixty will be able to shop exclusively on certain days at particular hours, usually early in the morning. This is a new thing. For a society where people strive so hard to look young and try to persuade others they are not as old as they are, it is pretty impressive…
People rarely reveal how old they are. But something happened in the world recently that has changed the way we all live on this planet. The brutal unseen enemy, coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, invaded us. We are all asked to retreat indoors and take all manners of evasive measures. Wear a mask, put a distance of at least six feet between you and the next person, cough into the crook of your arm instead of your hand, wash your hands constantly singing Happy Birthday twice, and don’t go out if you don’t have to. Life changed suddenly. All the stores, sports arena, schools and colleges, clubs, churches, shrines, and mosques closed down. Governments have invested billions of dollars in armaments to combat potential enemies. The defence budget in many countries dwarfs the education and health budgets, even when there are no wars to fight. All these preparations did not anticipate a virus, something that is not even living, but lethal enough to wipe us out. So far, it has killed hundreds of thousands of people in this country.
The matter of how to shop safely for food and other necessities became a serious national concern. The virus was found to be killing older people and those with underlying conditions. Young people continued to ignore the instruction to wear masks and observe social distancing, believing this kind of affliction and death are meant for older people and not them. I gathered that some of them saw it as comeuppance for what the older generation is doing to them; destroying the climate, polluting the air, water, land, hoarding the wealth, making them take out huge crippling loans for education, and influencing the political process so the outcomes are rigged in favour of older people.
To protect older people, grocery stores enacted some policies. People over sixty will be able to shop exclusively on certain days at particular hours, usually early in the morning. This is a new thing. For a society where people strive so hard to look young and try to persuade others they are not as old as they are, it is pretty impressive to see the long lines of over-sixties, with their masks, social distancing, and waiting to be ushered in according to the occupancy formula of the store.
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, changing norms, assumptions, patterns of consumptions, and habits. Could it also be that it is actually bringing balance to the world? Could it make us evaluate how we use the land, the oceans, rivers, and air, our forests, giving more respect to the systems that support life on our planet..?
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, changing norms, assumptions, patterns of consumptions, and habits. Could it also be that it is actually bringing balance to the world? Could it make us evaluate how we use the land, the oceans, rivers, and air, our forests, giving more respect to the systems that support life on our planet, letting us know how vulnerable we really are, in spite of the huge leaps in human achievement? United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, in addressing his son’s graduating class, said this virus has “pierced our illusion of certainty and control.” Wise words, indeed. The fear of old age and the glorification of youth revolves around that illusion of certainty and control, the unwillingness to be vulnerable. It led to the puzzling American saying, a few years back that, “sixty is the new forty.” A deep denial of the passage of time, and the nullification of the experience, wisdom and knowledge gained means we cannot impact them on those coming behind. Instead, being youthful, hot and sexy become the goals of many, buying products that promise to smoothen wrinkled necks, banish puffy eyelids, exterminate gray hair, and flattening double shins.
Facing an existential threat, there is no doubt that staying alive and healthy has become the priority for many who have realised that, unable to go to hair salons, sprouting gray hair does not subtract from their humanity. If anything, it enhances it. It is a small step, but the kind of mindfulness and consideration about age displayed by grocery stores and pharmacies must be commended. In spite of the vanities and denials of a youth-glorifying society, it shows that some humanity and care for old age still lies somewhere. In the end, if we are lucky, we will all get there if we get there. It is far better than the alternative.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: email@example.com
Picture credit: Link Analytix.