Second class citizens

I ARRIVE at the main door of the Senior College in Dun Laoghaire, a career woman, and mother-of-four. I am fresh-faced, wearing no make-up, apart from my lip-gloss, but slightly flushed, as I had trouble finding parking.

Thanks to the amazing work of Sarah Sheil, 32, and Paula Heraty, 25, who are both studying theatrical make-up, I leave a very different woman. Now 40 years older, I am grey, wrinkled and drawn. I look and feel very old.

As they begin the transformation, the girls study my skin — and guess I must be about 35 years old, which is a great boost for my ego — and then compliment my skin care routine.

“Smoking and sun bathing causes the most damage to a person’s skin and is the most ageing,” explains Sarah. “It is clear you don’t do either. You don’t have any crows feet or many wrinkles yet, but they will come. Everything will start to drop as you get older.”

With their numerous make-up palettes lined up, they begin to paint my face, vividly describing exactly how it will age over the next 40-plus years.

My lips will thin, my nose will spread, my crows feet will grow, my laughter lines will deepen, my complexion will fade, my hair will go wiry and start sprouting in strange places, and as for my neck and chin, they will become heavily wrinkled and jowly. “I feel too depressed,” I mutter, as they paint red and purple veins around my nose and eyes.

After exaggerating my features, drawing hard lines and wrinkles on my face, neck and forehead, the girls then cover them with layer upon layer of latex.

The smell of the latex is repugnant, it feels sticky and tight. Next, out comes the hairdryer to set it. I have to blow my cheeks out, to form more wrinkles. Amazingly, it feels and looks like real skin.

Suddenly, I can feel my eyes tightening whilst the lines around my mouth make it harder to open and talk. I have to purse my lips to speak, and my voice sounds different. Quieter and small.

Worried that my younger hands will give the game away, the girls offer to make them up, too. But I had remembered Madonna’s trick of covering her old and wrinkly hands by wearing black leather gloves, so had mine ready. Finally, what to do with my brown curly hair ? A grey wig looks too obvious, so they resort to talcum powder. Lots of it. I am now a greyish shade of white with three long, wiry, grey curls clipped to my fringe and sides.

Just over two hours later, the transformation is complete. I take a deep breath and walk over to the mirror to admire their work. “Oh My God, I have turned into my mother,” I shriek, peering closely. It was unbelievable.

Then came the clothes. What on earth could I wear to be convincing ? Thanks to my well-dressed 80-year-old mother-in-law, I had plenty of choice. I wanted to look smart so borrowed her new tweed winter coat, her headscarf and a matching cream handbag.

Recalling the words of advice: “Don’t forget to hunch your back,” from my 82-year-old father-in-law, I slowly walk out of the college. I am now ready to face the world as an 80-year-old woman.

Not surprisingly, I am slightly apprehensive as I brace the fresh sea air.

I was worried that I might not look the part, that people would see through me, or stare, thinking something strange had happened to me. I need not have worried, nobody gave me a second glance.

It was as if I was suddenly invisible. I decided to head for my local shopping centre, a place I know so well that many of the sales assistants would recognise me and would always stop to chat.

But today I am an 80-year-old woman. As I wait to slowly cross the road, drivers stop and wave me across. A young mother pushing a buggy warns me to watch my step. There are lots of potholes in the road since the bad weather.

First stop was a mobile-phone shop. I would be a regular customer, having bought several phones for myself and children there. I stood in the queue waiting patiently to be served.

Five minutes went by, I looked at the assistants. Normally, they would motion to me that they would not be long, not to leave the shop, that they would serve me very shortly. Basically, that they wanted my business.

Now, I had the feeling that none of them wanted to serve me. That they thought I was an old lady, baffled by the latest technology, who would ask silly questions, wasting their time, before walking out of the shop empty-handed.

Another couple of minutes went by and eventually a young assistant approached me and asked how he could help. I nervously present my 14-year-old Nokia phone, which is classed as an antique by my children, and stated I wanted an upgrade.

“That would certainly be a good idea. Does it still work?” he asked, sounding surprised as he examined it.

“What are you looking for?” he asks, as he walks over to the ‘Simple to Use’ section and points to the cheapest phone there.

“No, my granddaughter thinks I should have one of these,” I suggest, holding up an Apple iPhone. “Is it easy to use?” I wonder.

The assistant looked surprised, and shook his head. “They are the latest phone and can be expensive. Maybe your granddaughter wants one for herself,” he says, laughing.

He carefully explains the huge difference in price between the two phones, and suggests my needs would be best met by the cheaper one. I listen intently, and state again that I think an iPhone would be perfect for me.

I can see that the assistant feels uncomfortable, wondering whether I really do understand the price structure and the package deal. So to ease the situation, I suggest that I bring my granddaughter in with me next time for her advice. He agrees that is a good idea and seems relieved as a I walk out the door.

Later, when I discuss this experience with Nancy Tynan, 75, and a founder member of the Active Retirement Ireland organisation in Thurles, she says it is typical.

“It is patronising to be treated like that. I would be computer literate and so are many older people, but society in general doesn’t seem to believe that we can use the latest technology and understand it,” she adds.

Next, I pop into the newsagents to buy a Lotto ticket. The assistant hands it to me, as I fumble with my purse trying to find change. “If you win, they’ll take your pension off you,” he jokes.

I suddenly feel very, very old. To cheer myself up, I go for a cup of tea. As I walk to the café, despite the centre being full of shoppers, nobody makes eye contact. I feel very small and insignificant.

Sitting down, I wait to be served. Minutes pass and the waitress continues walking past me. I stare at her, willing her to come and take my order. But am ignored. Eventually I put up my hand, and call her.

“Oh, I am so sorry, I didn’t see you there,” she admits, whisking out her notebook.

I look around. The café isn’t that busy. I am sitting in the middle of it, not hunched in some corner. Had I just blended into the background because I am old?

Feeling weary, I drink my tea then head to a large department store to indulge my favourite pastime — clothes shopping.

As I browse the rails of clothes and examine their specific range for older ladies, I become increasingly depressed. The colours are so bland — everything is beige, oatmeal, neutral, cream or khaki brown — and the styles are so dated.

I look longingly at the bright colours — the blues, turquoises, pinks and oranges — for this season, across the aisle in the section for younger women Why could I not wear those clothes? Why can I not be fashion-conscious? Is an 80-year-old woman’s wardrobe simply made up of beige and oatmeal? Do they just fade away?

A sales assistant interrupts my train of thought: “Do you need any help, can you find what you are looking for?” she asks politely.

“I am trying to find a suitable outfit for my grandson’s Communion, but not having much luck,” I reply. “I would like something a bit more colourful, what do you suggest?”

She examines the rail upon rail of oatmeal and beige clothes, then points to something in the corner. It is a floral blouse — brown with a few pink flowers on it — with a matching brown skirt.

“How about this? It would look lovely together, do you want to try it on? What size are you?” she asks. I shake my head and say I would like something a bit less drab.

I know the shop assistant was trying to be helpful, but I came away feeling patronised and frustrated. As I walk back to my car, I pass a couple of my favourite clothes shops — Coast and Monsoon — and realise there is also nothing for me in them either.

“Clothes for my generation are very bland, I wouldn’t wear a lot of them at all. The problem is people don’t want to dress too young, but then I look at what is on offer and I see my mother wearing them. I could not and would not wear them,” says Nancy Tynan.

“Manufacturers should realise we have the same needs and desires and deserve the same level of choice, services and courtesy, that other people get. It is only fair.”

Eamon Timmins of Age Action agrees, and cites a recent example of an older woman at a perfume counter in a department store, who was completely ignored by the sales assistant offering free samples to customers.

“That is ridiculous and it is a very common and real experience. I think some of these department stores really do need to think and re-educate their staff. This is a growing demographic and many of them have a disposable income,” he explains.

“This would not happen in the USA, they know the value of the older customer. Do you really want to turn away business just because someone is older?”

On the way home I stop at a supermarket to buy a few groceries. Again I feel invisible, nobody offers to pack my bags, despite two sales assistants standing chatting nearby.

As I slowly pack my bag, I am conscious of several people walking towards my aisle, then quickly turning away. They are in a rush and am impatient. I am seen as old and slow.

Is this my future? Our future? If it is, it is a big wake-up call. A future of being treated as second-class citizens, patronised and pitied.

We are the generation that will live the longest. At the moment the average life expectancy for a man is 76, and a woman is 81. One in five of us will reach 100-plus years.

This year 11% of the population is over 65. By 2060 it is expected to be 25%, with more people being over 65 than aged 18.

So what can be done? Nancy Tynan believes my day-in-the-life of an 80-year-old will resonate with the Active Retirement Ireland’s 23,000 members.

“I am no shrinking violet, but ageing can be hard. A lot of our members would have held down very responsible jobs, may of them are retired night sisters who would have had a team of staff, yet now they seemed to have lost their confidence.” she explains.

“Society has to change. We need to be treated fairly as any other section of society. It is a mindset, but I have always said I wanted to be as young as I could for as long as I could be and to lead a happy, healthy life.”

Eamon Timmins believes as people retire, many do struggle to find a role within society, which will dent their confidence.

“There is a huge ageism in Ireland which considers people of a certain age to be worthless. None of it is done deliberately or vindictively. It is done without thinking, it is done by advertisers and a society that says young is good and if you are not young then you have got to pretend you are,” he explains.

“Instead, we should be saying what is wrong with ageing, people can age positively and realise that you can have a good life post-retirement and enjoy it.”

So what advice would I give to my 80-year-old self? Look after your health, exercise regularly, take care of your skin, keep a fringe to hide all those wrinkles, don’t be scared of the latest technology, be glamorous, and keep your family close.


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