Worse than racism. Worse than discrimination against sexual preference. Worse than hatred of others due to their faith.
Science tells us it has very real mental and physical health consequences on the very people targeted, including a decreased will to live, less desire to live a healthy lifestyle, impaired recovery from illness, increased stress and a shortened life span.
Yet so many people casually make comments about people being an old geezer, or over the hill, or some old fart. Or they avoid going to a certain place because “old people go there”. Or even worse, families and younger friends and relatives avoid visiting aging parents in skilled nursing and retirement communities because they don’t want to be around all those “old people”.
And even the trip to the doctor is not safe. If you’re over a certain age, chances are good your physician is less inclined to discuss new technological advances, new procedures or new therapy. Because he or she might be assuming your complaints are just due to “getting older”.
How incredibly sad. How maddeningly wrong!
Older adults…from age 60 to 112… are the ones with the wisdom. The life experiences. The perspective that comes from lessons learned. They have the stories. What a treasure trove we all are as we age, and usually, how willing we are to share with someone willing to sit still and listen.
The American Society on Aging reports that in 1968, Dr. Robert Butler, founding director of the National Institute on Aging, coined the term “ageism,” four years after free speech activist Jack Weinberg first uttered the phrase, “Never trust anyone over 30.” And since then, not much has changed. In fact, the ASA says that “ageism doesn’t even register on the public’s radar.”
Here are some other ways we “wise” ones are being overlooked through ageism:
- Older adults have a more difficult time finding gainful employment. They are seen as technology-averse, unwilling to learn new skills, difficult to manage (particularly by younger supervisors), too expensive, and not productive enough to justify the perceived increased expense (The New York Times, 2009).
- Older adults more frequently have their health concerns dismissed by healthcare professionals. In addition, they are less likely to receive routine screenings or preventive care, more likely to be treated less aggressively than younger patients with the same diagnoses, are generally excluded from clinical trials, and are typically treated by physicians who have little to no training treating older patients (Currey, 2008)
- Older adults, when not entirely disregarded by the media, are typically portrayed with negative stereotypes; and, when and if aging is depicted from a positive point of view, the depiction is typically unrealistic and unattainable (World Economic Forum, Global Agenda Council on Ageing Society, 2012).
- Older adults running for public office are routinely questioned about whether they have “what it takes” (ostensibly, good health, physical stamina, mental acuity, sufficient projected longevity, or all of the above) to serve in demanding leadership roles (York, 2014).
- Older adults have historically made a meaningful difference in their communities through civic engagement activities (White House Conference on Aging, 2015); however, institutions that could benefit from the knowledge, wisdom, and skills older adults offer are not making an effort to harness those skills in ways that could help local communities build their capacity to better serve those in need.
Now I’m a baby boomer. So, I’m really just starting to experience ageism. Sure, there’s the irritating store attendant who wants to call me “ma’am”. And the woman at the movie theater who wants to give me a senior discount even though I haven’t reached that age yet. Still, these are tiny things compared to the big picture. Yet they point to something that sociologists are talking about:
We boomers are having a hard time with the idea that we ourselves are aging.
Are we afraid?
Is it that it seems like it took five minutes to get here?
Or are we already seeing how we are starting to disappear, at least in terms of how well we are truly “seen” and “heard”?
Maybe the best thing we can do ourselves is to check how we treat those older than us. Instead of making a judgment about someone based on white hair, a few wrinkles and a birth certificate, maybe we think about how we will want someone to interact with us if we are lucky enough to reach a “golden” age.
- We will want people to hear what we are saying—actually listen when we speak.
- If we have a complaint about a pain or discomfort, we will appreciate a medical professional treating us as aggressively as they would a 20-year-old.
- We will appreciate respectful gestures (letting us go first, holding the door for us, etc.), but we would also appreciate the opportunity to simply blend in when appropriate.
- And when we truly are incapacitated in some physical way and require special attention, we also will look forward to interaction with those we love…visits, phone calls, letters. A reminder that others value who we are—STILL ARE—and that we are not something to be avoided at all costs.
It’s a tough subject. And yet it’s one that is going to be more and more important as the population continues to age. I know I can’t believe I’m not 40 anymore. I often don’t recognize parts of my body. I realize I don’t really care that I don’t know the names of some of the people on the gossip magazine covers.
But I also DO know how I’m better at my work than ever. I’m more patient. I can see the bigger picture. I don’t panic when some of my younger cohorts do. I value the work ethic, deadlines, and keeping my word.
I’m still here. For quite a while. And I’m going to do my best to treat those years older than me as just someone who’s sitting in a different part of the train.
Cause we’re all going in the same direction. So why not benefit from someone else’s sneak preview?
“The longer I live the more beautiful life becomes.”
Frank Lloyd Wright
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”
“Laughter is timeless. Imagination has no age. And dreams are forever.”