Christine Overall is Professor Emerita of Philosophy and holds a University Research Chair at Queen’s University. She has won awards for both her teaching and her research, in feminist philosophy, bioethics, and philosophy of religion. The author of six books and editor of five, Overall was guest speaker at the annual Olivieri Lectureship in Medical Ethics delivered at last spring’s CAUT Council, on the topic of “Is Ageing Good? Increasing Life Spans and the Problem of Ageism.”
“We’re all aging. Ten year olds, 20 year olds, 30 year olds are aging. Looking at it that way, it’s an existential question, about the value of living as a human being. But we don’t ask that kind of question about any other life stage. Is infancy good? Is adolescence? Is young adulthood good? We really are only likely to ask it about ageing and I think that fact is significant.”
Overall contextualized her opening comments by speaking about a close friend who died at 63, suddenly making the topic of ageing resonate with particular strength for her.
“I define aging as getting or being old: 70-75 and up. The question of whether ageing is ‘good,’ however, has personal, philosophical and social policy aspects. Data from Statistics Canada shows that life expectancy has been greatly increasing for the last 100 years. In particular, from 1921 to 2011 life expectancy at birth increased from 57 to almost 82. At the same time, life expectancy at older ages has also increased. A 55 year old in 1921 could expect to live for another 25 years, where a 55 year old in 2011 could expect to live another 29 years.”
She noted that Statistics Canada calls people who are 65 years and older, “seniors.”
“Along with increases in longevity, we have greater and greater numbers of seniors. The 2016 census revealed that for the first time, seniors outnumbered youth 14 and under. Additionally, the number of people 65 and over jumped 20% between 2011 and 2016. Centenarians were the fastest growing population during that time. The prediction is that by 2031, close to 1 in 4 Canadians will be 65 or older.”
Overall described how society tends to see ageing people stereotypically as burdens, and the growing numbers of older people as a “problem.”
“Old people are characterized as being in conflict with young people, withholding jobs and housing from other members of society, as costing too much, being bed blockers who use up too many resources, dangerous drivers and as failing to contribute to society… It seems to me that aging people just can’t win, because if an older person continues to hold a paying job, then that person is characterized as withholding a job from younger people. On the other hand, if an older person does not hold a paying job, they are characterized as being a drain on society and a potential burden. It seems to me to be a real double bind, and this catastrophization is an expression of ageism.”
Overall discussed an “Orwellian response of simply reducing the number of old people” with methods such as reducing the quality and availability of health care, nursing care, housing and nutrition, to overt encouragement for old people to end their lives.
She described a “duty to die”, as advanced by American philosopher John Hardwig, with others, including the bioethicist Daniel Callaghan, advocating for limiting expensive health care for elderly Americans.
One argument to these stereotypes, Overall says, lies in “highlighting the contribution of aging people who do paid work, who are often caregivers of children, grandchildren, spouses and friends. We know that aging people do a lot of volunteer work, and they are taxpayers, community members and citizens. But at the same time, surely aging people don’t have to continue to be high contributors in order to be treated with human respect?”
“Another way of thinking about it is that aging people are the parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors, coaches, colleagues and friends of younger people,” she said. “In other words, the notion of pitting generations against each other is simply a moral mistake. It’s not as if we have two very separate groups. We’re all in this together, as a community, or as a set of communities.”
“Most pragmatically, old people are us, or will be us. So when we subscribe to ageism, we subscribe to something that potentially harms our own future selves.”