Everyday I am reading headlines about some remarkable older person who is still plying his or her trade at a ripe old age. I want you to read that sentence again, and this time, take a snapshot of what you imagine that older person looks like and what he or she is doing.
Who did you come up with?
Did you see people in the media? Did you see Senator Dianne Feinstein? Did you see any number of kindly gray-haired physicians from favorite T.V. shows? Did you see Justice Ginsberg or Justice Thomas? Did you see Willie Nelson?
Maybe it was someone closer to home; perhaps you saw a relative, neighbor, or friend. What was the context? Were they healthy? Sick? Active or sitting in a chair? Alone or in a group?
Are you aware of just how ageist that beginning sentence is: REMARKABLE OLD PERSON . . . . STILL WORKING . . . . RIPE OLD AGE . . .?????
Who Is That in the Mirror?
How we view others, by definition, rests on how we have been raised. The lens of “different”, “other”, “old”, “young”, “ugly”, “beautiful” reflects the many distortions of the era we grew up in, the values and beliefs of our family and community, our lived experience, and what we have been taught.
These beliefs become embedded even within our self-image. Who am I comparing myself against? What standard of beauty, size, color of hair, skin, eyes do I use to determine if I am better than, worse than, or same as?
The Kaleidoscope Is Changing
I frequently use the metaphor of a kaleidoscope to illustrate how we create endless patterns that result in different views of what we once thought was unchanging. Each of the shapes individually remain unchanged, but the whole picture is altered when seen together in different light and with different turns of the tube.
We are in such a period of altering. And ageism is being “seen” in a new way. Where once we accepted terms such as “senior”, “retiree”, and “old person” as accurate descriptors of aging, it is clear to me that these terms are at best stereotypical and at worst pejorative.
The Familiar is Becoming Uncomfortable
I find myself bristling when I hear someone call me a “senior”, yet I have raised this question in any number of groups and many of my peers have no problem with it at all. Then we explore it a bit more. What do they feel when someone much younger offers them the “Senior Discount”? Does the term itself act as a “trusted brand” so that when it is used for selling “Senior Home Care”, a set of unquestioned perceptions of what it consists of fall into place? Do you fit into that picture?
If you do a Google search of the word “senior”, you will come up with multiple offerings including how it is used to describe people of a certain age. My point here is that the term is no longer useful. But it remains familiar.
Challenging the Narrative
There is a wonderful group of folks in Boulder, CO who are at the forefront of calling us out on how we talk about ourselves. Changing the Narrative offers workshops, resources, a great blog, and now a line of greeting cards! They have done the ground-breaking work of challenging each of us to look at the words we use to describe ourselves as we get older.
I have become much more sensitized to the words I use when I talk about aging. I have given myself permission to let others know and do my best to be humorous in my educating. And I realize this is going to be something that takes time to shift.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Which brings me to the focus of today’s blog: what criteria should be used to determine when someone is no longer able to function adequately in a job or role where what they do has an impact on others? Ageism plays a dominant role in how this question is answered.
If you believe you can measure how well someone does their job, what measures do you use? This is a challenging question to answer, since different jobs require different skill sets. A single job can also be done in many different ways, and still result in a positive outcome. Where ageism skews the picture, is when it is the primary criteria for doing a job is based solely on age.
Here in the United States, we use age a lot to determine who can or cannot do something. For example, you have to be 16 to get a driver’s license, 18 to vote. There are some professions, such as pilots, firefighters and police where there are limits on how long you can do your job and these are typically defined by age.
I think you will agree, however, that just because someone is 16 or 18 doesn’t mean they have the experience, good sense, and dexterity to insure they can operate a vehicle safely. The truth is, there are people of all ages (younger and older) who should never be allowed to drive!
A similar argument can be made around voting. Just because you turn 18 doesn’t mean you understand how democracy works, what the full implication of your vote means, and are able to discern the best candidate to represent you. Again, there may be voters who are never going to understand these things.
So, What Criteria Should We Use?
I have a suggestion! Functional capacity. This is a term used in healthcare a lot. In broader terms, it means the ability of the individual to perform and sustain those activities that are necessary to keep him/her/themselves healthy, engaged, and safe. These skill sets and capacities are impacted by lots of different things:
- having sufficient finances to purchase necessary items,
- having access to nutritious foods and being able to cook,
- being able to get from one place to another,
- being healthy and, when not, having access to medications, interventions, and care that will return you to previous levels of functioning,
- having a safe place to live and sleep,
- feeling connected with others either through productive activities or by belonging to groups with mutual interests,
- being able to engage with others socially, emotionally, cognitively, and physically, and feel safe doing these things.
Sometimes things that impact functioning are short-lived, for example flooding or fires, and with help, we can return to our previous way of life. Sometimes things that impact functioning are out of our control, for example war or drought, and we may need to change some of the things we used to do or move somewhere else and start over. Sometimes things that impact functioning are long-term and irreversible such as chronic illness or memory loss.
Applying the Criteria
Senator Dianne Feinstein has served Californians well for decades. Her record of public service is stellar. She is currently doing her best to manage a physical illness that is among the most painful that a human can endure: Shingles. Before that, however, colleagues, staff, and the media observed changes in her functioning.
There is no doubt that she is currently unable to function at the levels demanded as a Senator. It does not appear that she will be able to return to her previous levels of functioning due to complications of her physical and cognitive impairments. Based on that, and not her age alone, she should step down.
What areas of functioning are challenging for you? Are you in a position where what you do will impact others? Younger people expect us to have troubles with technology, be bad drivers, and not be able to do things quickly. Are they just reflecting ageist beliefs they have been taught? Or do you believe these things to be true?
To find out if You are ageist, click on the link below to take a free two-minute quiz!