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Rewriting the story of aging

Prof. Andrea Charise (right) worked with her Health Studies class to correct ageist content online. (photo by Ken Jones)

Students combat the "ideology of decline" in day-long event

Aging is often associated with deteriorating health. But that’s just one story. ACTipedia, a collaborative research project, aims to add new perspectives and more in-depth stories to the narrative of aging, by adding new content on Wikipedia and editing out ageist material online.

On February 26, Andrea Charise, Assistant Professor of Health Studies at U of T Scarborough and associate researcher with the Age+Communications+Technology project based out of Concordia University, worked together with her class HLTD50 (Special Topics in Health Humanities, Aging in the Arts) as editors and content creators on Wikipedia for an anti-ageism day of action.

“Older age is an aspect of identity that is generally underrepresented in North American culture—with the exception of gloomy portraits of aging as personal loss and as a social burden,” says Charise. “This resistance to aging—the refusal to see growing older as a complex aspect of our lives and culture—is reflected in the minimal availability of age-related content currently available on Wikipedia.”

Citing cultural age critic Margaret Gullette, Charise identifies the “Ideology of decline” as the motivation for the emergent health-humanities field known as age studies. “The ideology of decline describes a widespread tendency to associate aging with loss, the falling off of ability or of capacity,” says Charise. “Decline ideology sees an aging population as a crisis, and associates an aging population with dread, fear and panic rather than other stories.”

Aging as decline is the primary idea Charise and her students are challenged in this one-day event. “Age studies looks for those other stories of aging that get hidden or pushed aside by the ideology of decline.” It is also Charise’s inspiration for the humanities-based seminar course she teaches in UTSC’s Health Studies program.

“My ‘Aging and the Arts’ seminar aims to push back against the powerful stories of aging told by turning to the methods and materials of the arts,” says Charise. “My health studies students read novels, poems, films and essays for the purpose of becoming sensitive to more textured stories about what it might mean to grow old.”

Textured stories come from asking new questions about aging, finding new stories that represent the aging experience, and looking at aging from the perspective of the arts and humanities. Charise and her health studies students then put this classroom learning to use during a Global Action Day and Virtual Summit on Aging and Ageism on Wikipedia, which was held simultaneously with editing teams at UTSC, Montreal, and Finland. 

“How does age define what we are supposed to be doing? Why are we segregating people because of their age?” asks UTSC student Gladys Marfo, as she worked through these issues in her Wikipedia entry on population aging.

“Stories involving ageism and the specific individual experiences of aging are not really shared on Wikipedia. It’s not really something we talk about,” says UTSC student Halima Farah. To remedy this, Farah worked on adding an entry into Wikipedia about physician and writer Jerald Winakur’s Love in the Time of Dementia, a short story that focuses on a love story between a husband and wife with cognitive impairment in later life.

The goal of the event was to create more textured knowledge of aging through “identifying, modifying and positively eliminating ageism on Wikipedia, and increasing the amount of age related material that appears on Wikipedia,” says Charise. Her broader goal as a professor is to empower her students to translate their classroom experience into concrete, useful, public knowledge. “My aim is for my students to leave this seminar with a strong sense that they’re on the path to becoming experts in a field. Aging is not something that happens to other people, so why not start with a topic that’s relevant to every single one of us?”

The event was live-tweeted with the hashtag #UTSCAgingArts.


© University of Toronto Scarborough