In some cultures, late autumn and winter are the seasons associated with the Goddess as an old woman. As the ice, snow, and long nights curl Her chilling fingers around us, it is fitting that we honor the older women in our midst. Yet, the older I become, the more aware I am of how obsessively American culture has belittled and marginalized older women. Bringing a powerful, vital, and wise image of the older woman back into our consciousness — whether by calling older women “Crones” or using other words — is, to me, a tremendous achievement of feminism and feminist spirituality So, too, is the recognition of the vigor and achievements of middle-aged women inherent in names for this time of life like “Queen” and others.
Real middle-aged and older women who personify these fierce, brilliant, and successful role models are easy to find in my everyday life. In my neighborhood is an informal circle of middle-aged and older women who have started their own businesses – a tea shop, a gift and clothing store for teen girls, a natural foods store, and more – and support rather than compete with each other. An older woman has organized a successful movement to ban the sale of individual bottles of water in my community that could spread nationwide. Many of the volunteers who lead local communities like mine are older women. Other such middle-aged and older women abound on this blogsite, in politics, in the arts, sciences, and religion, leading organizations and movements and in many other places.
However, from the struggles of other older women I know, I realize that contemporary older women also have other, more troubling, aspects of their lives. Earlier this fall, Wider Opportunities for Women issued a report based on US Census data titled “Living Below the Line: Economic Insecurity and Older Americans” stating that half of all older women who live alone or with an elder spouse are economically insecure, with that percentage rising to 62% for women living alone. About 80% of older women live alone or only with a spouse. Wider Opportunities for Women defines economic insecurity as not having enough to pay for housing, food, transportation, and health care in their communities without borrowing money or relying on public assistance programs like Food Stamps. Minority older women who live alone or only with elder spouses are even more likely to lack enough money to meet all their needs. Fully 77% of Hispanic elder women, 72% of African-American elder women, and 59% of Asian elder women, compared to 46% for white women and 40% for all older men, are economically insecure.
Going without the money to meet basic needs is not the only challenge older women face. According to the US Census chartbook, “Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well Being, ” more than one in three older women lives alone, which can lead to social isolation and economic insecurity. One in six suffers from depression. Almost half of women over 65 have difficulties with activities of daily living or are living in a nursing home. The rates for all these are lower for older men. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, up to one in ten or more older women have experienced some form of elder abuse in the past year.
Older lesbians, bisexual women, or transgender individuals have even greater barriers to well being in later life. A recent report by Caring and Aging with Pride of LGBT older adults found that older lesbian and bisexual women have higher rates of disability and mental distress than heterosexual women and that transgender elders have the highest rates of all. Access to health care is essential for older adults who have the highest disability rates of any age population. Eleven percent of lesbians and bisexual women and 40% of transgender individuals report having been denied health care or receiving inferior care because of their orientation or gender identity.
What can we do to change this bleak picture of life for many older women? We must support those government and private programs like Social Security and Medicare, food stamps, Medicaid, and elder services that are the swiftly dissipating safety net for older women. We can personally assist those who, for whatever reason, need help in our neighborhoods and communities. We can affirm the importance of all older women to our movement and our society in our teaching, writing, speaking, and other interactions. We can support those organizations, like the Older Women’s League, that advocate for older women and issues of importance to them, and us. What else can you think of?
Advocating for the well being of older women is not only the right thing to do, but it is also essential to feminism’s future. Together older women are a formidable force. One in fourteen Americans is an older woman, a number that will grow to one in ten in 17 years. Should a significant proportion of these women come together to demand positive change for themselves and all women, true progress would be much more certain than without their support. Still, it is much more difficult to be an activist when you must choose between paying for rent, food, or medication and are suffering from ill health, depression, or abuse.
In Norse mythology, Elle, the Goddess of Old Age, wrestles with Thor and, though she appears frail and he strong, she wins. Like Elle, older women have many kinds of strength and power. The older women in our midst are not only our mothers and grandmothers, community leaders and givers of the fruits of long life experience, but ourselves as we age. Supporting them and working with them to ensure that they are safe, healthy, happy, fulfilled, and have what they need to meet their basic needs is key to a more just, peaceful, abundant, and respectful world for all women.
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a writer whose work focuses on the sacred in the everyday lives of women. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews and more have been published in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work at her blog,www.goddessinateapot.com. She has also been an elder services professional for almost three decades in New York City, throughout Massachusetts, and in two local communities including projects focusing on the needs of older women.