Seniors find voice through advocacy

By Danielle Gauthier

When Kathelyn Black turned 80 this year, one of her friends sent her this tongue-in-cheek message: “People are so amazed you made it this far, they don’t expect too much of you!”

But Black says she’s never been one to sit back and watch her life go by, and she’s not about to start now.

The Cumberland resident is one of many seniors in the region today who work to break down the stereotype that older people are passive, weak and feebleminded. Those who choose to speak out about issues that concern them do it in different ways, but all find a sense of renewed life in the process.

Black recently attended a self-advocacy workshop for seniors called “How to get what you need.” She says she learned that being assertive — not passive or aggressive — is the best way to get rid of a telephone solicitor or just to get a seat on the bus.

“Self-advocacy is important, because you have to speak up for yourself instead of having someone else do it for you,” says Vicki Larsen, who developed the workshop with the Council on Aging of Ottawa-Carleton.

“What you learn over and over again when you work on advocacy is that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.”

In an aging society that still dismisses older people, a little self-advocacy is a step in the right direction, says Bernice Moreau, a social work professor at Carleton University.

“If I believe the crazy notion that when you get to 65, you’re automatically out of it, then I don’t have to worry about you, you’re no longer a political threat,” says Moreau, who teaches a course on aging.

“Older people are realizing that in our culture, if you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will.”

For Daphne Fletcher, it means going beyond just learning to speak up for herself. Several years ago, she joined Ottawa-Carleton’s No Name/Seniors Action Network to fight actively for seniors’ rights.

“With No Name, you’re not alone, and if there’s a cause you have to fight, there are people behind you,” says the 64-year-old Centretown resident. “I think if you get involved in something and keep active, you live longer — and you keep out of the fridge!”

The network was created in 1992 by three local community health centres. Since then, it has helped interested seniors to lobby government about issues that affect their day-to-day lives.

Fletcher says she became an activist for seniors’ issues the hard way.

After back surgery several years ago, she says she was released from the hospital too soon. Alone and scared in her apartment, Fletcher had to crawl around on her hands and knees until she figured out who to call for help.

Now, she fights to allow seniors to stay as long as they need to in the hospital.

Fletcher also writes to politicians about pedestrians’ rights and traffic safety because two years ago, she was a victim of a van that ran a red light.

“I got hit flat to the ground and ended up in the hospital, pretty bruised,” she recalls. “I don’t take up a cause that doesn’t interest me.”

Liliane George of Orleans knows all too well what it’s like to take up a personal cause. But instead of joining a local council or committee, she started up one of her own.

In 1988, after spending thousands of dollars in legal fees in a failed attempt to get custody of her own granddaughter, George realized there were other grandparents who needed help.

The 65-year-old set up an Ottawa chapter of GRAND, a national support group for grandparents who suddenly find themselves shut out of their grandchildren’s lives.

And although today her granddaughters are her treasures, George says some of the group’s earliest members have yet to be reunited with their own grandchildren.

“Sometimes they call and they’re suicidal. It’s very difficult, especially when it’s a grandmother or a grandfather who lives alone in a little apartment, and they can’t see their grandchildren. It’s devastating.”

George says she tries to get estranged members of families talking, and often spends hours on the phone with any of the group’s 400 members.

But messy divorces or family battles can be impossible to overcome, she says, especially since grandparents are still waiting to be recognized under the law.

“When grandparents come to me to get involved, it gives them more hope. It helps them to cope.”

Living — and not just aging — has everything to do with finding ways to cope and to express emotion, says Carleton’s Moreau.

“You could be 15 and feeling so old, acting so old, and you could be 105 and dancing your way through life.”

The players with Lanark County’s Sage Age Theatre are a case in point. The group of 12 seniors has been performing improvisational theatre all over Eastern Ontario since 1992 to create awareness about issues affecting older people.

They invent humorous skits revolving around the lives of older people, with subjects ranging from privacy for couples in nursing homes to AIDS and sexual abuse.

“There’s nothing that isn’t fairly tastefully done,” jokes Sheila Maltby, one of the group’s founding members. “We even do death and dying, because it is a part of life.”

Maltby, 70, says she never thought she’d be “dancing around on a stage at my age,” but she loves seeing audiences howl at skits like “No Sex, Please — We’re Retired.”

And while Sage Age’s theatre is light-hearted, its advocacy is serious: seniors themselves need to find the beauty in old age.

“We don’t cry ‘O woe is me,’” says Maltby. “We tell them ‘You’re here, you’re older, you do have a place in life.’”