As I was preparing for the Senior Canadian Curling Championships my recurring knee and shoulder injuries were making it hard for me to curl my best. On the ice, I was in constant pain. I needed to get help and to get help fast. A local physiotherapist was recommended to me, but I was skeptical. I’ve been to a dozen physiotherapists, without much luck. Many have made assumptions about my physical ability and age, which ticked me off. At the same time, I was desperate to relieve the pain. Why? It wasn’t so I could get a better sleep or take less Ibuprofen, it was so that I could curl better — full stop. That’s what a lifetime of competing, pushing, and playing does. The academic in me is critical of this. The curler in me is not. The aging woman in me … well the jury is still out because, I can’t lie, it’s getting harder.
I reluctantly made an appointment with my physiotherapist, Nelson, who turned out to be very young and very fit. This could go badly, I thought. As he was collecting information about me, he learned that I was a curler. He very quickly informed me that he is often mistaken for one of Canada’s most famous curlers, Brad Gushue (2022 Canadian Men’s Olympic Skip).
Connection made … check. Rapport built … check.
As Nelson was assessing my injuries, he told me that “the best thing for you to do right now is rest, but I know you are not going to do that so let’s see what we can do”. I liked this for a couple of reasons. First, there was nothing said about being a woman of a certain age and the importance of scaling back at that age; things that I have heard way too often. Second, he respected that I am an athlete who needs to curl, and to curl well.
Five weeks later and we were off to our competition. I felt a lot better. Not perfect, merely better. But then, what is feeling perfect? For me, there is not a day that goes by where I don’t feel physical pain. As I’m writing this post, my hamstrings are sore, different bits in my back are stiff, and my shoulders ache. As a society, our tendency is to attribute the pain I feel to the fact that I am a 56-year-old woman. But this kind of attribution is simplistic, essentialist, and quite frankly, ageist.
Ageist assumptions about pain permeate other domains of life too. Several years ago, my colleague, Kim Shuey, and I wrote a paper on aging and the perception of disability in the workplace. We found that workers who attribute their disability to aging are less likely to ask for workplace accommodations and are less likely to receive them even if they do ask.
Feeling “perfect” for me is living with some degree of pain, regardless of my age. It is difficult for me to know how much of my pain I should blame on aging or the spinal fusion surgery I had when I was 11 years old to improve a major case of scoliosis. My back is fused from top to bottom, and as a result, other body parts get stretched to their limits. I don’t think that I have lived a day since my surgery where I haven’t experienced pain. I’m used to it and I’m telling you this because it shows that we need to interrogate our assumptions about the relationship between aging and pain.
Interrogating, however, does not mean ignoring. Competing, pushing, and playing is getting harder. Particularly over the last 5 years, recovery time is longer, more body parts hurt at once, and injury is more prevalent. All of this makes the motivation to train more challenging; especially with a pandemic making it unclear whether my team will have an opportunity to play. Why continue? Because I love curling, the curling community, the exercise, and competing.
So, what says the aging woman jury? — Rest!
But I think not. I guess my identity as a curler is stronger than my identity as an older woman, at least for today.