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Interview: Will Boomer Women Redefine Golden Pond?


Lillian Zimmerman

Lillian Zimmerman

In Bag Lady or Powerhouse? A Roadmap for Midlife (Boomer) Women (Detselig Enterprises), gerontologist Lillian Zimmerman argues that midlife women have what it takes to reconfigure everyday meanings and experiences of growing old.

An octogenarian and mother of two boomer daughters, Zimmerman is a long-time associate of the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. She specializes in gender issues for older women.

AHB reached her in Vancouver.

Ruth Dempsey: So where did you grow up?

Lillian Zimmerman: I was born in Montreal, Quebec, and have no siblings. When I was 10, my parents decided to move to Vancouver. My parents were a stable and loving couple. It was during the Depression and times were hard.

RD: What sparked your interest in aging?

LZ: I got old. Also, I have been a lifelong feminist – well, since the 1960s. As I aged, I began to take notice of the way older women are mostly "invisible." I followed the data and reports, and I found single, older women to be among the country’s poorest (as are some men, too), but nobody seemed to pay much attention.

RD: Early on in your book, you describe the positive aspects of boomer women’s lives. What are these?

LZ: Boomer women grew up in such different times to mine. When they were young, they were part of the ’60s and ’70s student and other protest movements, especially the women’s movement, that of Afro-Americans and also Gay Pride. These have influenced many boomer women’s lives.

They are far more independent than we were – we married young, became housewives and had children. Now younger women are in the paid workforce, more educated, stay single longer, and when they do marry, or live common law, they have children later in life – and have fewer of them.

I am far from saying their lives are a bed of roses. In fact, I detail challenges facing boomer women in my book including, lower salaries, inadequate pensions, care giving responsibilities and ageist beliefs that target women in particular.

That said, when I was growing up, it was time to "move upwards’" building lifelong careers often in one job, trading up small houses for larger ones, having two cars and so on. I am describing how we made it into the middle class. Not everybody did, of course.

But in that era we saw the development of social welfare in Canada – medicare, public pensions and unemployment insurance. There was more of a collective ethos. A sense of people looking after each other was reflected in social policy. Now, sadly, these institutions are seriously threatened.

Still, I believe midlife women have what it takes to tackle problems today. At least, I feel it is within their grasp to level the playing field.

RD: You predict that senior centres will one day be replaced by "maturity centres" with libraries, exercise rooms, health-care staff and travel agents. Why wait?

LZ: Well, that’s up to the boomers now. I wrote that as a fantasy because I am so opposed to all the fear mongering about the crisis of "aging populations," and older persons draining the medical and pension coffers and threatening to bring down our entire economic system.

Also, it is time to get rid of the word "senior." It has the connotation that once a person becomes 65 they begin a downward slide. This, of course, is not true. I dreamed up the term maturity centres to counteract this.

RD: You make this point elsewhere. For instance, in your Globe and Mail article (September 19, 2011), you argue it’s time to recognize the positive contributions of older people . . .

Absolutely! Older people contribute to the economy. In fact, it’s been estimated that the time, energy and money that older Canadians contribute to the economy may reach $5 billion annually.

And, like everyone else, older people pay taxes. Large numbers work as volunteers and many give liberally to charities.

Many grandparents, especially grandmothers, help their adult children and grandchildren in important ways such as childminding. They reach out when they are in financial or other difficulties. They help them purchase homes. And, when they can, they give generously to their grandchildren for education, sports and other fees, and to buy things for themselves.

I want the contributions of grandparents to be recognized. I think that is now starting to happen.

RD: So, what advice do you have for women retiring today?

LZ: Above all, do not internalize the crisis mentality about the horrors of aging. And ignore the "decline regime" as the writer Margaret Gullette calls it.

In our youth oriented culture, we are made to feel useless, and urged to use "anti-aging products" and so on. Utter nonsense! See yourself as a capable, experienced person who has given much to your family and society and will continue to do so. Refuse to decline!

RD: You say one of the rewards of longevity is the company of your adult grandchildren. How so?

LZ: I have four grandchildren. They bring ways of understanding the younger generations, what interests them, what motivates them, so it teaches me a lot. It is really important to know the worlds of those younger than ourselves, and not to be scornful of what they do, as in "Well, in my day. . . ."

I have a humorous chapter about my grandkids and me in Shari Graydon’s book: I Like the Way My Hands Look.

RD: On turning 85, you told one interviewer that life is better now in some ways. How so?

LZ: I have far more confidence now than I ever had. I make decisions quite quickly, rather than back and forthing for ages trying to figure out what to do. I’m not always right, but most of the time I have done the right thing.

Also, I am hardly concerned with what others think of me, except for people I truly value. I also feel quite relieved that I no longer have to worry about furthering my career. I pretty well do what I want to do, as long as I feel responsible about my choices.

RD: What nourishes your spirit?

LZ: Darned if I know! I saw a film about five older women in England, aged 85 to 102. One of these remarkable women said it was anger that kept her going. She is the 102 year-old, and is shown heading a huge anti-war protest in London!

In my case, I know social injustice has fueled my flames. Also, I have been blessed with relatively good health, which has allowed me to remain engaged and keep on reading and writing – I published my book at age 82. I had never thought of anger as a life-enhancing asset, but it looks like we have a lot to learn about its positive effects.