A painting of a face.
Kathleen Cosgrove

My Story

As I have gotten older, there is a sense of urgency that permeates everything I experience and think about. Until the Covid pandemic hit in February of 2020, I was feeling pretty darn good for being 69 years old.

Suddenly, because of the pandemic, I was told I was vulnerable. “Seniors - the elderly” - all people over 60 should not leave their houses. We were dismissed. Have your groceries delivered; you can’t even visit your own grandchildren, or friends. People who had family in hospitals couldn’t visit them, even if they were dying. Can you imagine being married to someone for 50 years, who is in immediate danger of dying, and being told you cannot go to their bedside? I was furious! How dare they say I am vulnerable! I hiked the Camino last year for God’s sake. Do not tell me what to do. I am strong.

But I stayed inside, my grandchildren grew older, and I grew more angry.

I thought back to when I was a little girl, and my mother, now long since gone, told me about the Spanish Flu. She and my uncle were born around 1918 in South Dakota, and she said the doctor did not wash his hands. Her mother caught the flu and died. Mom was raised in Catholic Boarding schools.

When I was 16, I worked in a hospital as a Nurses’ Aide to help pay for college. I came home from work one night and my mother told me my grandmother had just died. It didn’t make any sense. My mom went on to explain that her mother did catch the flu, but rather than die, she got a high fever that left her brain damaged. At age 23, Edith, my grandmother, was locked up for the rest of her life in an Asylum for the Insane and Feebly Minded. I never met her.

My paternal grandparents died when I was a small child. My only memories of them are from a scratchy 16 mm film of me crying at my third birthday party. I now have eight grandchildren of my own and I laugh and say I can’t be a grandmother - no one ever taught how!

All of this, plus other stories about being treated as invisible or like I don’t really matter, set the backdrop for creating the “Feeling Our Age” project. I do matter and so do all the other millions of people who are over the age of 60. Discrimination against older persons is tolerated for some reason. When we talk about social justice, we fail to mention older people who are often dismissed as having little or no value.

I started this project because I was angry. My emotions were raw. I wanted to change the narrative about older women. As I started talking to others, I discovered I was not alone, and the concept of painting 60 women over 60, and asking them to write how they feel being their age, was met with overwhelming enthusiasm.

I expected everyone to feel my frustration about aging, but writing started coming in from women about how great their life is, and how much they enjoy their newfound freedoms. When asked to elaborate on their stories, people began to open and describe the immense challenges they faced to get where they are today. I learned of their accomplishments, generosity, and of the sense of purpose that still drives them today. It was then that I realized they are happy because they are giving back to others, and that gives them joy.

I believe we need to fight age discrimination, be more inclusive and reinvent how we talk and think about older persons. But I believe this starts by listening, and recognizing the many ways that older people make the world a better place.

My grandchildren are teaching me how to be a grandmother. I am no longer angry; I am a different person. This project, these women, changed my life. I am hopeful that together we can change what needs to be changed and that these women, and their wisdom, will make you feel hopeful too.