Lessons from women 55+ on ageism and the importance of remaining engaged in physical activity, recreation and sport

That’s the title of a webinar I joined this week, offered through the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association ( I couldn’t stay for the whole thing, but I did get some really valuable things out of it.

The first speaker, Peggy Edwards, talked about the context for older adults in sport. Words matter: Elder for indigenous and religious leaders; elderly is associated with frailty and dependence; senior is best reserved for discounts at the store. “How are we today dear” is right out, along with would-be compliments that perpetuate the view that decline is normal in aging.

She also talked about demographics and the need to face up to our biases. Older adults in Canada increasingly ethnically diverse; older indigenous women more likely to die early; 80+ is the fastest-growing population group. However, older women are often invisible in society, and ageism and sexism are barriers for women in sport.

In order to get older women involved in sport, we need to focus on the benefits of getting older. Contrary to popular perceptions, older women have higher levels of thriving in social and physical aspects of life than some other groups. We also need to choose positive language, be realistic about the images used in advertising programs, address diversity within the community of women, and – crazy idea here – ask women what the want to do.

The Wife of Bath, from The Canterbury Tales. She was an older woman, having buried five husbands. Her famous riddle was “what do women want?” The answer was “to be in control”. An illuminated manuscript image of a woman in a red and blue dress riding a brown horse.

The next two speakers focused on specific ways to reduce barriers. External ybarriers are those that prevent women from joining sports activities. They include weather and infrastructure (slippery or poorly maintained sidewalks are hazardous especially for women with mobility or vision issues), transportation, and cost. Equally important are timing and what is offered. That’s where diversity comes in. Older women are not always retired and available for fitness classes during the day. Many are bored at the prospect of mall walking, pickleball and aquafitness as the primary options available.

Impacting barriers affect women’s ability to participate fully. Health can be both a motivator and a barrier. Women caring for grandchildren or ageing parents may guilty about taking advantage of respite services to go play golf, rather than just for essentials like groceries. Others include the lack of buddies to join in with (cliques are still a thing no matter how old we are), or the programming itself (lack of adaptations for people who are learning new skills or have mobility or strength issues, the rapid pace of instructions, or even program descriptions that are unappealing to women who don’t see themselves as seniors).

The final group of barriers is internal – the way we see ourselves as athletes. Body image, guilt, confidence, the feeling of invisibility as an older woman all come into play here.

So how to address those barriers? Thanks to sexist differences in opportunities growing up, older women often need to develop physical literacy, so offer fundamental movement skills classes similar to those that are common for children. Offer a variety of activities, with adaptations; some older women love to play basketball if the net is lowered a bit; others want to take up tap dancing with simpler routines and no sequins. Recruit older women instructors. Create confidence through women’s-only programming, especially for sports that are new to them. Train instructors to read medical forms and provide options that make sense for those with arthritis, high blood pressure, etc. Ensure instructors set goals with relevant rewards, such as sleeping or being able to walk upstairs better. Explain where the bathrooms are and what participants need to bring. And again, involve women in planning programs. This was a recurring theme.

All of these big ideas got me thinking about my own relationship to sport and aging. I don’t have much of an issue around sport or being active, but I realize I have a big issue with aging. I just turned 60. There! I said it out loud; I don’t think I have told anyone my age without significant prodding since before I turned 25. I don’t try to be younger than I am, but I certainly have a fear of becoming an invisible older woman, and I hate the idea of seeing my sport horizons wither to mall walking and aquafitness classes as I age. I definitely want to live by the last few ideas shared before I had to leave.

Age big, bold, inquisitively, gratefully. Long live endorphins! You don’t have to be an expert: you just have to be curious.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She is now tempted to take up tap dancing.

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