The Language of Ageing. #1

I started unloading my basket of shopping onto the counter at the IGA and said, ‘Hello’, to the young man behind the till.

‘How are we today?’

Fed up with having the ‘we’ thing again, actually, but…

“I’m alright, thanks. How are you?’

‘Good, thanks.’

Ping. Ping. Ping. He swiped the shopping through.

There was no one else up at the counter, so I thought I’d give it a go. He looked bright and perhaps able to get it.

‘Actually, do you realize how offensive it is to say ‘we’ like that to an older person?’ I asked with a smile.

He stopped, looked at me, blushed and exclaimed, ‘I am sorry,’ with a question mark in his voice.

‘Yep.  All my friends can’t stand being called ‘we’.

‘Um. What’s wrong with it? I didn’t even think about it.’

‘Well, it’s a bit patronizing.  It sounds as if I’m in a nursing home or something,’…  and you shouldn’t even use it there, I’m thinking, but didn’t say.  I’m staying cheerful and a bit jokey. I resist talking about ‘we’ being a plural etc.

‘Ohh yes.’

‘Actually, when you think about it, it’s pretty ageist language.’

‘Oh no! I am sorry. I didn’t mean it. Well, how will I say it then?’

‘ You could just say, ‘How are you?’ like you would to anyone. Actually, I think using the ‘we’ is a bit sexist too. I don’t think you’d say it to an older man by himself.’

‘Oh, no. It’s getting worse! I’m mortified.’

I really liked this young man. He absolutely got what I was talking about and was confident to talk about the issue.

I paid, picked up my bag and said ‘Goodbye. And thanks for listening to that.’

‘Good bye and thank you,’

Gosh that went well. Writing it sounds like a training exercise.

I see him from time to time and always enjoy responding to his knowing, ‘How are you?’

Great Barrier Reef Swimming.


I’ve been off the boat for twenty seven hours now and I’m still swaying slightly. For a week, I’ve been moving on board the Coral Princess as she cruised the Great Barrier Reef’s outer reefs and islands or with the motion of the Coral Sea as I snorkeled through the warm tropical reef waters.

Our first snorkeling was off a small island where we had moored. Before we swam, we had a glass bottom boat tour over the reef and were introduced to the coral and fish. The density and colour of the coral was really interesting to see because the only other coral I had previously seen was brown and disappointing. From shore, I waded awkwardly in fins, a too tight wet suit, and the new feeling of a mask and a snorkel before whooshing ahead to discover an undulating world of Technicolor coral and fish.

The fish leapt into life in velvety iridescence. Their markings were vibrant and electric: blue, bright yellow, emerald green, purple, orange and every other colour and pattern combination possible. Large, lorikeet hued parrot fish pushed and nudged at the coral as they fed on the algae, reminding me of a hungry baby butting away at a breast. Curtains of tiny damsel fish hung trembling in the deeper pale blue regions as squadrons of fast swimming blue, black and white fish streamed past. A pair of round yellow, white and black striped butterfly fish posed for a moment before wiggling off-stage.

That’s only a fraction of what I saw. I felt there was too much to take in: the colours, shapes, groupings and movements defied words and I decided to stop thinking about what I was looking at and just float around with them all.

And then there was the coral, the backdrop to the free moving fish. The colouring of the coral was similar to the fish but muted and they too had a large variety of forms: large rounded forms like the mustard coloured boulder corals or the brown and yellow honeycomb sprawling across the reef. The branching corals in white with iridescent blue tips or just plain electric violet contrasted with the velvety contoured and curved elephant ear corals ina yellowy green. The soft corals waved with the current: a faded mauve one on a white trunk flourished its tendrils and the brownish spaghetti coral waved like a carpet of long grass.

Many days, we swam off the back of the boat. By then, I’d jettisoned the wetsuit and the fins and swam in just bathers, a sunscreen Tee shirt and reef sandals with, of course, the all important mask and snorkel. It felt free and easy like that and I loved just slipping into the water without a lot of fuss. There were times when I was swimming with no sight of land at all, with the moored boat the only fixed point. If I was quick, I could be first in the water and feel that I was the only human in the sea for miles and miles around. We would have buoys to swim within and were watched over by at least two crew members all the time. Unlike Victorian waters there was no shark threat, no strong currents and the water was WARM! It felt really safe.

Out on the Ribbon Reefs, further from shore, the water was clearer and the coral spectacular. It was basically the same as our first swim but, now, brighter and absolutely in focus. I could see the polyps let out from the coral swaying as they fed from the passing water. I could stop and float above a colony and observe in fine detail the branching forms, the colour gradations and the tiny fish nudging through the branches feeding within the safety of the coral branches.

In many ways it felt like floating above a forest. The reef resembled trees, shrubs and grasses with the fish being particularly exuberantly coloured birds flying through the branches. Sometimes I felt that I could be looking at an Alpine rock garden. In other places there would be a barren patch of sea floor covered in white broken coral branches which had been knocked over by a cyclone, looking just like a storm damaged forest. Over this white floor there could be a sea cucumber – black, leopard or the spiky pineapple type- perhaps curved like a fat comma as it munched its way through the fallen detritus, excreting it as white coral sand.

Each swim, I would look out for giant clams. Sometimes there would be an isolated clam on a patch of coral sand but often they would appear in pairs or trios. I was intrigued by the different colourings inside their curving shells but never saw a better grouping than one on our first Ribbon Reef swim. The zooxanthellae algae which live in the clam’s mantle develop different colours and in this group, the biggest clam was vibrant blue-violet with green spots (the clam’s ‘eyes’), another had produced a brown and gold leopard skin pattern and the third was an emerald green with yellow spots. These clams were about 70 cms to a metre in length. We learnt that clams actually close quite slowly to about 80% closed and then take much longer to completely shut, so the story of getting feet caught in clams is a bit of a myth.

There was a different type of smaller clam which burrowed into the boulder corals and just presented their white rims and coloured mantles. They could be closed into parallel white squiggles or could be partially open and feeding with their coloured mantles open to the moving water.

From the boat, the reefs would show against the blue as roughly circular brown patches of varying sizes. It was these we swam over, feeling in quite close contact to the life a metre or so below us. At the edge of the reef the sea floor dropped into a glowing, deepening blue. Fish numbers dropped right off. At first I had a strange feeling of perhaps not wanting to go too close to the edge, almost a fear of falling but then when I did ‘jump’ and kicked out over above the blue it was like floating and flying. However, this first time was a bit uneasy as I was outside the buoys by then and it seemed too far on the edge. It was quite good to flip around and return to the security of the reef life. The next time, however, it was really good and I loved floating in what felt like a strange zone of water and sky.

I’m going to miss the moment of anticipation as I sit on the diving platform at the back of the Coral Princess before pushing off into that extraordinary reef world. Writing this piece has helped me consolidate the memory.



A 69 Year Old Grandmother


 “A 69 year old Brisbane grandmother takes on a US Biotech company in the High Court over human gene ownership, “ ran the lead sentence of a news item on the ABC on June 16. Subsequently, different versions of the headline have appeared , all noting the 69 year old grandmother.

This is a typical example of a news story headlined with the identification of a woman with a specific age, then the title of ‘ grandmother’, followed sometimes by the number of grandchildren.

It is both Ageist and Sexist.

It’s Ageist because she is identified by her age. The implication of noting age in a headline is that it suggests that age has a particular bearing on the content of the story. It’s unusual to read headlines about, “A 34 year old woman .…. “ or, “ A 34 year old man ….” However, it seems that after about 65, people, and particularly women, are often labeled and defined by their age in a headline or first sentence. The significance of their age is then not discussed at all in the article. It is not the defining characteristic of that person in that context.

There seems to be an assumption from some in the media that people, and especially women, over their mid sixties are not active participants in society. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary. It’s as if it is only their age which can be seen and which blinds the reporters to such qualities as a strong sense of justice, analysis, and persistence which have brought the individuals to public notice.

This social blindness extends to the Sexist use of ‘grandmother’.

Now, let’s go back to headlines and think of a headline which reads, “A 34 Year Old Childless Woman ….,” or, even stranger, “A 34 Year Old Childless Man …” It would only happen if the childlessness were a key part of the news story. So why was the reproductive information of ‘A 69 year old” included when there was no relevance of her family history to the news item?  

“Grandmother” often seems to be code for something. It suggests an old woman who is nurturing, family focused and who exists outside the interests and issues of the ‘real world’ and about whom nothing else can be said. It seems a matter of great surprise to the reporter that this person is behaving like a member of general society and is also, amazingly, a grandmother.

If you do a quick Google of ‘69 year old grandmother’ you find a strange range of headlines: “Meet saucy 69 year old grandmother from Edinburgh…’, ‘This 69 year old grandmother is as hard as nails – about bench pressing’, ‘Grandma(of course 69) attacks would be car jacker’. It’s interesting that they are all about her physical prowess.

I have very rarely seen a headline identifying a man as a grandfather in the context of a story which is not about grandfathers. Google brought up one about ‘M M is a 69 year old grandfather of four, nurse, black belt..’ and another, ‘Grandfather, 69, shot dead after opening his door to 20 year old man’.

It is difficult to separate the Ageism from the Sexism in this issue and I think that the two sets of careless labeling are tightly interwoven. Men are less likely to be identified by age and their family circumstances.

I do have to declare an interest in this matter. You could attach a variety of labels to me, including the fact that I am both 69 and a grandmother. However, I would not like to to be defined that way unless both labels were the most important part of the context in which they were used.