The Seattle-based speaker and activist finds that humor helps when approaching a fraught topic.
“I ease into it,” she noted. “I show birthday cards for older people and you quickly see that most of the cards are agist.” They depict older folks as doddering, hard-of-hearing and foolish.
“I always wonder why are we making fun of aging when we are all aging?” She sees this as one of the last prejudices to be questioned, “the final frontier of prejudice,” Gillam called it.
She’s made a career out of questioning the conventional aversion to age and working to support older adults. Gillam has been a facilitator for AARP and is board chair of the Northwest Center for Creative Aging. She’s volunteered as a hospice worker for many years, and helped her own parents through end-of-life challenges.
“When my daughter was about 12 she said, ‘Mom you have a crush on old people,’’’ Gillam recalled. “And I do.”
She credits her parents for instilling normalcy around aging. “They had me in their ‘40s but they did everything and I never heard them say ‘I’m too old for that,’ or ‘I can’t do that.’”
Attitude is important to consider as you interact with others, Gillam said, especially grandchildren. “What is the legacy you’re instilling? If it’s negative what you’re telling everyone is that aging is horrible.”
In her talks, she offers wise advice on how to approach growing older with a good and grateful attitude because, bottom line, aging is a privilege. Not everyone gets there.
“The No. 1 thing for positive aging is social engagement. Pets are wonderful and can be a part of a full life but you need people,” Gillam said.
Acknowledging that some people are not natural joiners or extroverts, she nevertheless encourages engagement. “I don’t want to say, ‘You will come to this event or you will die of loneliness,’ but have something on your calendar.”
She points to the four things anyone needs for a fulfilled life, old, young or in-between:
“First, you need something to do. Second, something to look forward to. Third, something to believe in, and fourth, someone to love. I would add a fifth — something to laugh about.”
As a former standup comedian, Gillam understands the magic of a good belly laugh. “I collect humor,” she said. “I surround myself with things that make me laugh — videos, books. Become a collector of funny things — cat videos! Whatever makes you laugh.”
If nothing else, Gillam wants people to get this: “It is never too late. And that helps fight inertia.”
Now 67, she plans to keep agitating against the insidious agism of our culture and to encourage others, which includes launching a new website soon, a new phase of her vocation called Age Engaged.
“People are living much longer now but we haven’t replaced our view of what old is. We still have an image of Whistler’s mother,” Gillam said. “So I say, challenge yourself on that. What will you do with your time? What will you contribute? What will you learn? Who will you teach?”
And, how much will you laugh?
— By Connie McDougall