I actually spend a lot of time thinking about and working with my own ageism. What is now bringing me encouragement is that I am no longer talking to myself. While we are still in the early stages of this awakening, it no longer feels as if I am alone in my contemplation.

Just What Is “Ageism”? 

It is how we think, feel, and act and interact with others based on beliefs we have about getting old. This includes unchallenged stereotypes, as well as the beliefs and attitudes about aging introduced to us growing up that are either reinforced or countered based on our own individual experiences.

At its core, however, it is self-loathing and fear.

What Is “Old”? 

This term is actually more difficult to define since it relies on a linear measurement of time. For example, the lifespan of a Mayfly is one to two days. The lifespan of a tortoise ranges from 80 to 150 years. Within the world of the Mayfly, the “young” may be found in the first hours, and the “old” in the last. Within the world of the tortoise, “middle age” may be 75.

At its core, however, “old” (as it applies to the human lifespan), to most of us means decline.

Ageism as Prejudice

According to the American Society on Aging, ageism is one of the most widespread and socially accepted form of prejudice. It comes in different guises:

Implicit ageism: The unconscious bias that includes attitudes, feelings and behaviors toward people of other age groups that operates without conscious awareness or intention.

Benevolent ageism: Patronizing, paternalistic beliefs or behaviors that older people need to be protected and taken care of by younger people, because they are no longer able to make decisions for themselves.

Cultural ageism: The everyday, invisible, profoundly ingrained and normalized negative messages about aging and old people embedded in movies, TV, songs, jokes, etc.

Internalized ageism: How we feel about ourselves as aging people; and ageism in which older adults marginalize and discriminate against other older people.

Holding The Mirror

I know when I read through this list that I have no trouble coming up with examples – not in other people, but within myself!  I make fun of my graying hair. I use phrases like “Old Fart”. I condemn “older” drivers for being too slow. I use terms like “Sweetie” and “There, there, now!” when talking with some of my clients. (Photo by Tom Hussey)

And those of you who regularly read this blog, know how triggered I get when someone calls me “Senior” or “Miss”!  My friends roll their eyes when I bring awareness to their use of the word “elderly”, and encourage them to claim the word, “elder” instead.

Shifting How We View Aging

One of my favorite websites is the Centre for Ageing Better in the United Kingdom. They just published a report from The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth (SAACY), that explores the value, feasibility and acceptability of shifting how we view the ageing process. Its goal was to achieve attitudinal change to ageing, by moving away from a narrative of disease and decline towards the idea that ageing is a lifelong process of change.

Here are some truths identified in the study:

“Ageing” is often associated with:

  • weakness, disease and death
  • fears surrounding death associated with getting older
  • poor experiences of elder care
  • consumer society’s focus on younger demographics
  • the assumption that science will ultimately find a ‘fountain of youth’ to combat the changes that come with age.

Cultural Pessimism Towards Getting Older

It is no wonder that there is little or no enthusiasm around aging issues if we only talk about getting old in terms of decline and death. This is known as the “medicalization” of aging. It makes for great profits if you are a pharmaceutical company, an insurance company selling Medicare Advantage plans, or a fading TV star who now pitches reverse mortgages.

We’re seeing this pessimism play out in the workforce where jobs go unfilled. Why? Because there are not enough younger, trained workers to take over jobs of folks who “aged out”. Age and experience do count for something. Not everyone needs to or wants to retire at 65!

We are also seeing this even in groups that are dedicated to promoting and preserving the rights of aging Americans. I have been active in local government agencies (Area Agency on Aging) as well as national groups (AARP and American Society on Aging) and continue to be dismayed at the levels of ageism exhibited by staff and members alike. This is not going to be easy to shift.

Embracing the Shift

Awareness of all the issues concerning aging are shifting at increasing pace. I started writing a book in 2018 that I tentatively titled, “Embracing the Shift”. It remains in draft form not just because I have been distracted by other things, but because the shift has been so dramatic, what I initially penned is already outdated.

In learning to embrace the shift, I suggest we need to pay attention on three levels:  our own individual needs, the needs of the communities in which we participate, and where there are opportunities to preserve and protect the legacies of values that transcend a single lifespan.

Individual Needs within Society

The World Health Organization identified eight elements of an elder-friendly community (housing, transportation, social participation, access to nature, social inclusion, employment, health care, and communication/tech). These elements are essential to the health and welfare of any community no matter what your age, but have particular importance as those needs shift over the lifespan. In my work, I found two additional elements – the arts and spiritual grounding – were also essential.

Communities all around the world are beginning to address these needs. Understanding that meeting the needs across the lifespan does not pit young against old is a first step in addressing the ageism inherent in the belief that older people are just a burden.

Your Community Needs What You Have to Offer

I continue to say this:  my generation survived similar challenges to what we are facing right now. Why is this important?  Because it demonstrates that such challenges can be overcome!  What is not available to those at the early stages of the lifespan is hope. The unknown to them causes fear.

We lived through Watergate and made heroes out of journalists. We survived the assassination of not one, but five leaders and learned to mourn while re-committing ourselves to the ideals set forth in our Constitution. We marched, were spat upon, were attacked, were martyred and we stayed the course, because it was right. We impeached a President, then pardoned him and returned to governing chastened.

Preserving the Legacy

Our task, at this later stage of the lifespan, is to preserve and protect a legacy that is much larger than us alone. It is not to perpetuate hate. It is not to tear down everything. Those are actions of immature people. Our task is to preserve what works, inspires, and sustains us during dark times. It is to hold a light and expose the rot that exists, call out the liars and the cheats, and demand that we all do better, because we have a legacy worth protecting.

We do this by showing up.

Yesterday Was Ageism Awareness Day

Maybe the word didn’t reach you that yesterday was the day to wake up. If it didn’t, don’t despair. Keep listening. More and more of us are joining the chorus.

Take a moment and try out some of these ideas:

  • Adapt and move forward as you age (age well!)
  • Recognize that aging is a mindset – set your mind to adapting and accommodating to the changes aging brings
  • Show up – put yourself in the middle of your life and let it be known that you have things to offer
  • When everybody else is wearing stripes, dare to wear polka dots!  We are not a homogeneous group. There is room for the rich and varied models of what it means to age well.
  • Aging is inevitable, but you don’t have to fear it. Reach out and connect. That is the most potent antibody to loneliness.

2 responses to “Yesterday Was Ageism Awareness Day. So What?”

  1.  Avatar

    What (grimly or at least ironically) amuses me about people who make ageist slurs (Example: “Biden is too old” — NOT “Biden is a wily coyote whose 50 years of experience make out-maneuvering fools easy”)– is that they are SELF-IDENTIFYING as totally clueless and unconscious. Why do I say this? Because such remarks PROVE the issuer has NO CLUE that she or he will actually (gasp!) get older too. I.e., they are living in that la-la land of “I’ll never be old (like THAT).” Pretty funny. Like wearing a tee-shirt reading “I’m a dope.”

  2.  Avatar

    Thanks for giving us a framework for thinking about growing older in a constructive way. I recently listened to the audible book, The Hiding Place, and was struck by the Nazi assumption that those who could no longer contribute to the success of Germany or were a threat (the Jews), were disposable either by natural or state means. This utilitarian way of looking at the value of people misses their sacredness and the possibility that all of us, including the vulnerable person, miss the preciousness of the life yet to be lived. This is why it is so important to be living in caring communities where we are encouraged to be our best self and to serve others for their good.