‘The care of older people is barbaric in this country’
Catherine Rose, who retires from Age and Opportunity tomorrow, talks about the realities of ageing in Ireland
Catherine Rose, head of Age and Opportunity: ‘There is a very powerful internalised ageism that we all have to work against.’ Photograph: Dave Meehan
It seems ageist to call her sprightly, and sexist to remark on her trim figure, but I’d be happy to look as healthy and energetic when I am 70. Catherine Rose moved into her eighth decade this month and is only now ready to leave her job as chief executive of Age and Opportunity, the organisation best known for Bealtaine, the annual month-long celebration of older people’s creativity in May.
“I’m grateful to the board for allowing me to stay on after retirement age but it would have been wrong of them to dismiss me,” she says. Although her financial motivation was clear – to pay off her mortgage – Rose says her attitude to work has only changed now, not when she was 60 or 65.
“When I was in my 60s, I still had ambitions to have more money, and I worked at a workaholic rate, but now money doesn’t feel as important as staying healthy and having less responsibility. Slowing down has become important, and I never thought that would happen to me. But, I’d still like to earn money to supplement my pension, which will leave me with about one-quarter of what I earn now.”
Paying off the mortgage at 70 is far from the fashionable view of older people escaping the brunt of the economic recession, but Rose says that, as a divorced mother who had to financially support three children, buying a house only became possible later.
“I’ve been living an independent life for almost 30 years, with no financial help from my ex-husband,” she says.
A degree but no college
Rose, born the eldest of five children in Cork, didn’t go to university because her widowed mother couldn’t afford it. Instead she learned how to edit, design, print and promote books with maverick publisher John Feehan at Mercier Press in Cork. “It proved to be the equivalent of an arts degree,” she says.
She moved from Mercier Press to RTÉ, but had to leave her fledgling career as a radio producer because of the public-service marriage bar [which until 1973 prevented women from working after they got married]. Her husband’s work took them to Birmingham, Cork, Galway and then Dublin. As a mother of young children, she never wanted to be at home full-time, and she struggled with the prevailing culture of women in the home with no access to childcare. “I always felt a bit of an outsider. I’ve never felt completely on track with everybody else,” she says.
Her interest in feminism and social inequality emerged as she freelanced in journalism and started feminist press publisher Arlen House, while her husband’s work changed from book publishing to newspapers to the music industry.
“There was a strong drinking culture around his work, and I felt very unsupported in the home,” she says.
It was only after she separated that her career in Age and Opportunity began. “I had to get out of my marriage if my mental health was going to survive. I knew I was heading for illness if I stayed, but I had no profession and no way of earning a living.”
She landed a job co-ordinating a year of activities for older people, which evolved into Age and Opportunity with its staff of 20 in offices at the Marino Institute of Education.
“Media people laughed or sympathised with me. ‘She’s working with the old folk,’ they sniggered. ‘Could I not get a decent job in some kind of media [organisation]?’ I was quite negative as well, and if I hadn’t needed to earn money, I wouldn’t have gone for the job,” she says.
“There is a very powerful internalised ageism that we all have to work against. I caught myself recently thinking I was too old to learn to dive.”
It was perhaps her outsider status that inured her to criticism. “The rationale for my job was that if we created a better attitude to ageing, we could keep older people in better health, with a better self-image so they would be less of a draw on the economy.”
So, has that happened? “The month of May is now synonymous with older people and the arts because of Bealtaine. So, yes, the arts have provided a transformative engagement for older people, but we have issues.
“We are afraid to talk about frailty, loss, dying and death in the older people’s movement, and there is a stigma around being involved in older people’s organisations which prevents prominent people in the media or politics getting involved.”
Rose would like to use the Celtic festival of Samhain in November to explore the dark side of ageing. “It’s not just about dying and loss. I don’t have ambition any longer. I like solitude, quietness, stillness, and some of my friends and family are dying.
“There is a downward pull about ageing which we need to embrace. We need to talk about what happens to us when we are no longer independent. Loss, bereavement and dying are far too hidden, and we might be able to use the arts to explore all these issues.”
Not including all age groups in the debate about how older people are treated, is, for Rose, the big mistake. Giving responsibility for older people to a senior government minister would help, she says.
Infantilised older people
“The care of older people is barbaric in this country and older people in care are infantilised by being called pet names. If I said to you tomorrow, ‘You will have a level of frailty and this country will not support you to live at home,’ how would you feel? None of us wants to be put in an institution, and most of us don’t consider these policies until we become frail, and then it’s too late.
“We need to be careful to bring young people with us or older people will be seen as selfish, when it isn’t the case. There are more issues for disadvantaged older people, but I’d love to see a movement of older people cognisant of young people’s issues.”
Rose says she has no plans for work or travel when she leaves her office tomorrow, but she doesn’t see herself retiring.
“Retirement is bad for you. I want to stop and think, and I might have to stop myself getting involved in mental health issues, because my son has schizophrenia and the stigma of mental illness is as bad as the stigma of growing older.”
BEALTAINE: KEY EVENTS
This annual feast of creativity for older people embraces craft, singing, writing, film, dance and theatre. On Sunday, the Bealtaine Dawn Chorus will get people singing in the early morning – on beaches, riversides and quaysides, in forests and town squares.
Tomorrow, the book Life Is for Living will be launched as part of the Dublin Writers Festival. It is being published to celebrate 25 years of Age and Opportunity, and includes reflections on contemporary Ireland from Edna O’Brien and Christy Moore, among others.
Carnation Theatre presents Fuss on the Bus in libraries, care settings and nursing homes until May 29th, and Dublin City Gallery – The Hugh Lane hosts Ageing Agitators: Social and Political Engagement in Older Artists.