Dr. Andrea Charise urges Canadians to embrace a more nuanced view of aging, one that is not inextricably tied to disease and decline. Photo: Andy King
As Canadians, we often hear and read about aging as an ominous crisis—a threatening wave waiting to crash over us burdening us with frailty, sickness and overwhelming medical costs. Dr. Andrea Charise, an associate professor with the department of Health & Society at the University of Toronto Scarborough, is working to complicate that trope—in a good way.
Charise’s work takes an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from both arts and sciences, to disentangle stories of aging from the overly medicalized narrative of declining health and to give attention to the many voices that have been silenced by that powerful narrative.
In honour of National Seniors Day, and of the United Nations International Day of Older Persons, Dr. Charise took the time to talk to us about her unique field of study, and what Canadians can do to combat ageism and rewrite that troublesome narrative of decline.
Hello, Dr. Charise! Thank you so much for joining us to talk about your work and share your research with our members. Could you begin by telling us a bit about yourself, your background and what led you to study aging and the arts?
My background is pretty unusual, whether you look at it from the arts and humanities side of my training or the science and clinical experience side. In high school I could never decide between English literature or biology. But the one thing I could count on was being told by teachers, family members and other well-meaning people that one day I would “have to choose” between arts and science if I ever wanted a job doing, well, anything. I believed them, of course. I was just a teenager. I attended McMaster University and took courses in literature and philosophy, as well as the sciences you might expect: chemistry, biology, physics, calculus and so on. I landed an ongoing summer position working in clinical epidemiology (the study of population health patterns), and that was looking like the career I was going to develop in my late teens and early 20s.
My interest in aging came as an accident. When I began my master’s degree at the University of Western Ontario, like most students, I was broke and needed money. Since I already had some research experience, I figured that someone in this hospital town must need a research assistant, so I applied everywhere. The department that got back to me right away was geriatric medicine.
What I didn’t expect was how energetic and compelling a work environment this would be. From my supervisors to the subject matter, I was immediately struck by what strong advocates for older people the physicians and health professionals were: their advocacy was part and parcel of the clinical care they provided their patients, often folks with pretty complex medical issues.
I then realized that I had actually had a lifelong interest in aging, even if I never thought about it that way before. I was raised by my grandparents—in high school I played in a small jazz band, and our best gig was at a local retirement residence—and close friendships with older people were rather naturalized for me in my personal life. It wasn’t until I began working in geriatrics that I had this wonderful realization that the job I had was actually integrated with some important threads of my personal life. That was an exciting moment. The geriatricians I worked for were, hands-down, some of the most incredible people I have ever met because they knew that good care means advocating for the rights, interests and dignity of older people.
We couldn’t agree more about the meaning and significance of good care! Let’s dive deeper into your field of study. For the uninitiated, what is the health-humanities field of age studies and what are its goals?
In many ways, my career is a result of the imagination of my early supervisors. When I raised the fact that I had a background in the arts, one of the geriatricians simply said, “why don’t you do something with that?” That was the beginning of a longer invitation to begin developing arts interventions and activities involving older people, or—as I do in my more recent research—to facilitate what is called “intergenerational interaction” (basically younger and older people interacting for the general purposes of wellness and enhanced socialization).
Age studies describes the field of research and education that draws on disciplines like the arts, humanities and the critical social sciences to better understand the meaning of aging, older age and the nature of intergenerational relationships. It’s related, in a way, to the broader field known as “health humanities,” which turns to the methods and materials of the arts to explore individual experiences of health and illness.
Thank you for that overview! So, how is age studies different from other approaches to researching and studying aging?
Age studies differs from more traditional disciplinary approaches to aging (such as gerontology) by focusing on the knowledge-making value of the arts. One of the priorities in age studies is to develop our understanding of how the creative imagination is itself a way of exploring and investigating the significance of older age. In my own work, this interest in the arts takes the form of writing and literature. In my latest book, “The Aesthetics of Senescence: Aging, Population, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel” (2020; https://uofrpress.ca/Books/T/The-Aesthetics-of-Senescence), I explore how 19th-century British novelists investigated aging at the same time as it became an increasingly medicalized subject over that period.
You can read the book for my full discussion of this, but in short: at this time you have novelists that are reading what we would think of as “scientific” texts, and, at the same time, you have scientists that are reading novelists and poetry and integrating those more “artistic” forms of knowing into their scientific treaties and writings on aging. My book charts the traffic between these two disciplines and argues that it was an essential tactic for learning about aging in those early days of what we now call an “aging population.” It also gives me a sense of where we might have gone, had we as a society kept such an open and interdisciplinary approach to our understanding of aging over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. I think how we understand aging—especially how we might be inclined to view it as a problem—would be quite different now.
In her recent book, Dr. Charise examines the history of our understanding of aging and the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach that brings more to the table than declining health.
Speaking of viewing aging as a problem, older adults represent the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population, but many older adults continue to face ageism in their daily lives. Why do you think ageism continues to be so pervasive?
Ageism is pervasive in western society, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated ageist tendencies across North America and Europe especially. The term “ageism,” for those who aren’t aware, was first coined in the late 1960s by Robert Butler. While it technically describes prejudicial behaviour toward any age group, it is almost exclusively used to describe prejudice against older people. Like any “-ism” in our society—be it racism, sexism or colonialism, for example—there are multiple systemic factors that perpetuate those beliefs.
For me, ageism is so prevalent because it reflects a profound fear held by many of us that one day our precious bodily gifts—be it youth, or beauty, or ability or any of the traits prized over the course of our life—will disappear and we will be dismissed alongside them: precisely because we ourselves have scorned others who have lost those qualities with age. I like Ann Karpf’s definition of “ageism” the best: that ageism is prejudice against our future selves.
Ageism is so pervasive because as a society we have failed to provide ourselves with other markers of worth and value beyond things that will inevitably diminish: youth, ability and power perhaps foremost among them.
Older adults are, of course, negatively impacted by ageism, but you’ve just touched on the ways in which it could affect all members of society. Can you speak to that a bit more? How does ageism hurt the younger generations, as well as the older ones?
A great question. Of course, ageism is destructive when it is directed against older people: look no further than the atrocious, truly obscene difference in mortality rates between long-term care versus general population due to COVID-19. But ageism, even toward older people, has a damaging effect on society at large as well.
One of the deficits of an ageist society is the blockage of intergenerational communion: strong and meaningful relationships between people identified as different generational cohorts. Multi-generational households, and cultures where inter-generational interaction is normalized, have the opportunity for knowledge memory and ancestral inheritance to be shared freely and organically between people of different generations. Remember, isolation affects not only older people, but younger people as well: Millennials and Gen Z’s have some of the highest rates of loneliness, mental anguish and friendlessness, as do older people.
Ageism means we are condemning all points of the life course to desperate forms of solitude—and that has immediate health effects on us all, as well as social and existential ones.
In addition to the isolation it fosters, one of the most problematic facets of ageism is the notion that older people are a homogenous group with the same qualities, needs and concerns. Is this a recent phenomenon?
It depends what you think of as recent! One of the threads I trace in my book, is how over the 19th century, British and more generally Anglophone ways of imagining older age became increasingly homogenized as aging became a primarily “scientific” field of study. As aging became an increasingly scientific field of interest, we saw the turn to more patterned and homogenous visions of aging, and away from what we might think of as distinct, eccentric or otherwise individualized portraits of aging. That’s a generalization, of course, but it speaks to the ways that a topic or phenomenon shifts, depending on what disciplinary lens you are taking to investigate it.
Earlier on in the 19th century and even before that, the very fact of an older person was rather remarkable, because it was so unusual to live past 60, 70, 80 years old. That said, there are certain patterns associated with older age—think King Lear and his unwillingness to surrender his political position, for example—that have deep roots in the imagination of older age, in the West, anyway.
What can Canadians do to combat that homogenizing narrative of decline and, importantly, to strengthen intergenerational solidarity?
It’s easy, and almost inevitable, that a society in the midst of the multiple crises we are in now—not just the pandemic of COVID-19, but of racism and state violence and the implication of older lives in each of those domains—would feel the need to focus on the profoundly negative narratives of decline that are so common to portraits of aging around the world. That said, I think it’s essential to find ways to escape or at least try to imagine otherwise when it comes to our own aging.
One of the ways I have been exploring this in my own new research, is with the use of digital storytelling, especially digital storytelling by younger people about the meaning of older age. The Resemblage Project (https://resemblageproject.ca/) is an intergenerational storytelling project that I have recently launched and I am really excited about the incredible stories of aging and intergenerational consciousness that have been generated by a remarkable range of younger people living in Toronto and Scarborough.
The next phase of this creative research will involve expanding our Storybank of artistic, and incredibly moving, meditations on aging and older age to other involve other community organizations across Toronto and Scarborough, where I do the bulk of my teaching. This approach seems to be working, and I am really motivated by the excitement my students bring to issues of aging in a new course I’m teaching this term, called “Creative Research Practices in Ageing”: how they are thinking about the need for arts-based health research in long-term care and for older people especially.
For me, the most immediate and crucial way to fight ageism is to encourage younger people to see ageism as something that will impact their own lives, and sooner than they think.
As I like to say in my classes, 40 comes at you fast; 30 comes at you faster. When we find ways to make it clear that aging is something that happens to all of us, that’s when we have an opportunity to combat ageism by strengthening the social solidarity between generations.
Thank you, Dr. Charise, for this enlightening conversation. Our members are testament to the fact that seniors are not just one thing—they are loved ones, advocates, coworkers, volunteers, adventurers, philosophers and so much more.
We encourage our readers to share Dr. Charise’s important message out in their networks and communities. Each of us has job to do when it comes to building meaningful intergenerational connections and rewriting aging as a complex, nuanced and individual experience.
More about Dr. Andrea Charise
Andrea Charise (BArt.Sc, MA, PhD) is Associate Professor, Department of Health & Society, at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) with additional affiliations in the University of Toronto's Graduate Dept. of English and the Faculty of Medicine. In addition to recognition for her work in literary studies (including the John Charles Polanyi Prize), Charise has more than twenty years’ work experience as a health researcher (primarily in geriatrics, the care of older people). Her award-winning research has been published in peer-reviewed venues including Academic Medicine, Journal of Medical Humanities, Advances in Health Science Education, and English Literary History (ELH). She is the author or editor of two recent academic books (including the The Aesthetics of Senescence: Aging, Population, and the 19th-century British Novel (SUNY, 2020; and University of Regina Press, 2020) and Routledge Companion to Health Humanities (2020). As the founding supervisor of Canada’s first undergraduate program in Health Humanities, Charise brings practiced, collaborative, internationally-recognized leadership to innovative research and public-facing knowledge translation at the intersection of arts and health. Read more at www.andreacharise.ca, www.resemblageproject.ca, or on twitter @AndreaCharise.