The pandemic has highlighted the ageism that prevails in Western societies. This was "a tipping point" for the writer and sexologist Jocelyne Robert, who argues for a wake-up call in her forthcoming work "Vieillir avec panache" [Growing old with panache], a book that seeks to take down the taboos around aging.
Seniors have been reduced to numbers, shut away in retirement homes or nursing homes and reduced to silence since the start of the covid-19 pandemic. Do you think that things could have been done differently?
It's true that they were shut away, but you have to be careful. The tendency during covid was to "lump all old people together." Many of them aren't in retirement homes. They're at home, and isolated. More generally, I think that, in these conditions, we couldn't really do things differently. That is why I would warn that, now we have seen that we were not in a position to face up to this kind of situation, we make sure that it doesn't happen again. The mere media handling reflects the situation well: older men and women were reduced to numbers and did not benefit from as many stories and articles as the deaths of younger people. That gave the impression that these old people were not important.
It is because there's this taboo around old age, something that you talk about in your book?
Yes, in part. Everything is about youth, beauty, performance. Most people don't feel concerned by old people. And it's not something that's always done consciously. That's what I consider to be "benevolent ageism," which is expressed, for example, by treating people condescendingly. The other day, my hairdresser told me that she became aware of this way of acting after reading the book. She said to me: "I'm ageist with my parents, I treat them like children."
How do you explain that fact that we infantilize our elders when these are the people who raised us?
I have a two-year-old great-granddaughter, who's wonderful. And evidently, she doesn't make any distinction between my partner, her mother, her grandmother or me. She doesn't do any kind of age segregation because she hasn't yet been "polluted" by the world around her. But she will grow up and learn that, in our societies, not everybody is treated equally. She will build her character by integrating this information, society's diktats, and be capable of growing up understanding this, but without appropriating it. But that's very difficult, because socio-cultural diktats are very, very onerous. Education should be the focus, so that children develop a critical outlook.
In your book, you describe a generation war in which the common enemy for young people and old people are the so-called boomers. Why is this?
Boomers belong to a privileged generation. It was the post-war years, there was an economic boom, the world was opening up, there were cultural and feminist revolutions ... anything was possible! The previous generations, the "silent" generations, didn't have this freedom and that can lead to feelings of jealousy. Still, all the same, boomers are even greater enemies of the young, of Generation Z. We saw that during covid with #okboomers, which reproaches them for having their cake and eating it while still having frosting around their mouths. And yet, it's thanks to them that we're speaking to each other at the moment.
Is growing old harder for women, who are exposed to the cult of beauty and society's sexism?
In this book, I tried to treat everything as equally as possible, but I think that yes, unfortunately. It's harder for women in terms of self-perception and the body image they give off. It's no coincidence that many turn to surgery. It's also more difficult because they are poorer, financially, and more alone. Men very often find new partners and make no secret of it, while women will be more modest about such matters. But if you look at it from a different angle, women also adapt more easily. As they grow old, single women are not going to be desperately seeking to form a new couple, but rather, to continue their journey. And they are much more likely to open up, confide in one another, and seek advice than men.
You also talk about eroticism and sexuality in older men and women. Do people finally discover the pleasure of liberated sex as they grow old?
Yes, in any case, for those who manage to let go of their fears, and not care about what others think. Older women who continue to have sex are treated as "nymphomaniacs" or "pigs" for men, because this aspect of their lives has been totally banished, past a certain age. These are expressions that I have already heard in the circles in which I work! In the book, I give the example of Madame Rosa, who is 78 and has a sensitive libido and a highly developed sex life. She's often uneasy about it. It's one example among so many others. Pleasure is, on the whole, broader and less inhibited. While some will still be having sex, others will be more open to something more 'erotic.'
This interview has been translated from French.
"Vieillir avec panache" (Growing old with panache] by Jocelyne Robert is published by Editions de l'Homme and is released May 20, 2021 in France.