"Look, the old hag is swimming" I always loved swimming. In the sea or in a pool - my dad taught me to swim when I was eight. It relaxes me, makes me feel active. It is a part of...

“You lose your name. You just become some sick old lady”: three moving stories of ageism



Natasa Todorovic


“Look, the old hag is swimming”

I always loved swimming. In the sea or in a pool – my dad taught me to swim when I was eight. It relaxes me, makes me feel active. It is a part of who I am.

When I was 11, I won my first swimming medal. Then another came and several others followed, but regardless of whether it was gold, silver or bronze, swimming is my true love. I put on my swimming cap, I dive into the pool and I am overcome with joy. In those moments, I know it is something I will be doing until the end of my life. But several days ago something happened that hurt me and made me wonder if I may be mistaken, if perhaps the time has come for me to quit swimming.

I was swimming in a pool, many people were around me and among them were two boys. They were about 11 – the same age I was when I won my first medal. Their laughter caught my attention, but then I saw them pointing me out to their friends, saying “look, the old hag is swimming!” God, as if I was an alien. I felt ashamed doing what I love, something I should never be ashamed to do.

Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you my age. I am 77. But I swim the same as when I was 11, 21, 41 or 61. Why is it that sometimes younger people, and occasionally older people too, think that older women should not be swimming? Perhaps they think our age makes us unfit to get in a pool? That, because we are older ladies, we may have never learned how to swim or that we have forgotten after all these years? Is this their ignorance speaking, or is it a mentality that tends to be negative towards ageing and older age? Do they not understand that ageing does not have to be negative? That in many cases it is, on the contrary, positive?

I look at these kids and think: I was like them once, I was 11, I was rascally and full of life. And I stayed the same. I am not 11, I am 77 now. But today, as always, when I dive into the pool I feel wonderful. Sure, I wear this funny cap on my head, but this doesn’t take away from how much I enjoy swimming, and it helps me stay physically active. And they should appreciate watching a granny take a dip! Swimming is not a privilege granted to you only when you’re young, I’ll teach them that much.

“You lose your name. You just become some sick old lady”

I am lying in a hospital bed. I can hear and I can see, but I cannot move and I cannot answer when they ask me a question. Doctors and nurses shuffle by my bed, my relatives come to visit but I am sleepy and tired. I know I am a drain on their finances – nappies, medication, bandages, but how can I change this? I don’t want them spending their money on me…

The worst moments are when it’s lunch time. The nurse puts the plate on my nightstand. I am a bit hungry, but I am too weak to reach for the plate, too weak to move. If only someone was here to help me eat. That would be good enough for me.

But the nurse is back and I hear her yell: “Oh, so you won’t eat anything? What a spoiled princess you are!” I hear her take the plate with my untouched lunch and she is gone. It doesn’t matter I suppose, I was not that hungry anyway. My son will come visit me later if he can get out of work, and he will bring me something to eat. I just hope they will let him off work during the visiting hours. I won’t be sleepy then. I will tell him I am hungry. I just need some hot soup to get my strength back.

I am lying in the bed and I hear them talking about me. “Yes, she’s quite old, she’s lived for quite a few years” and I think “well, don’t talk like that in front of me, I can hear everything, step outside, show some discretion”.

I lie in my bed and think about how hard it is when you are powerless and weak. You lose your own name. You just become “some sick old lady”. You used to be much more than a sick old lady.

I lie there thinking “if only I could wash my hair”. I used to visit a hairdresser every week. Now they haven’t washed my hair for 15 days. I used to work in this hospital. I was a nurse. These are my colleagues. But I am not their colleague any more. I am just an older patient lying here, awaiting my destiny.

“What does this granny needs new clothes for?”

I love shopping. I love looking at clothes, trying shoes on, eyeing up jewellery, and sampling perfumes and make up. You probably think “she’s in her 20s, 30s or 40s”. But no, I am in fact 66.

I know the typical person in my country thinks: “What does this granny needs new clothes for?” Yes, I can sense your reactions. Just like I can see salesgirls in shops first scan me with their eyes and try to guess my age. They usually say something like “Oh, ma’am, that’s not appropriate for your age. That’s for girls. How old are you? Here, let me suggest something more appropriate for you!”

What a nerve! Whose decision should it be anyway? Am I not entitled to my own opinion on what I want to wear? I know what I like wearing, and what colours I love.

It gets worse. One lovely spring day I was walking around with my lady friend, looking for a place to have a nice cup of coffee. Most of the coffee shops were packed, but we managed to spot a free table in one. As we approached, a waiter came to us and said they are full. “What do you mean full? That table there is free!” “No, I said we are full, there are no free tables for you here.”

I was confused, surprised and ashamed. No free tables for “you”? Who is “you” here? Older ladies? Do they not want women over the age of 20 or 30 in their coffee shop? As I was standing there, pondering these thoughts, two younger women walked by us and took the seats at the free table. There – the place is not full for them, just for us. Scandalous! These people are actually afraid that their other clients might think “What the hell are these two grannies doing at this place?”

These women deserve to be treated the same as everyone else

These three stories are not fiction. I heard each of them from older women, older women with names and lives, members of the same society as us, living, working and ageing.

When you speak about a person’s whose age starts with 6, 7 or 8, when you speak about people with wrinkles on their faces, who were born in the first half of the 20th century, always be aware that you are speaking to your future self, a future coming faster than you think. Bear in mind these are women who used to work, love and cry, and still do. They fought for their rights, and our rights too, and they deserve the same treatment as everyone else.

Natasa Todorovic is health and care program manager at HelpAge global network member Red Cross of Serbia.