You – Yes, You! – Face Discrimination
Ageism Harms Our Health, Our Happiness, and Our Longevity
Some human societies revere their elders and seek out their wisdom. Needless to say, this ain’t one of them. In our society, elders are encouraged to leave the workforce at their earliest convenience, to live in their own “retirement” communities segregated from the mainstream, and just to butt out of most matters of import, with the possible exception of on-call babysitting.
The idea that life is too precious to be wasted on the old is not new. Addressing the class of 1905 at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. William Osler, one of the university’s celebrated founders, stated that men under 40 were making all the great advances in the modern world, and he further expounded on “the uselessness of men above 60 years of age.” (And for the record, when Dr. Osler said “men,” he didn’t mean humankind. He meant men.)
Dr. Robert Butler, the founding director of the National Institutes of Aging, labeled this attitude “ageism” in 1969. He defined ageism as “the discrimination, abuse, stereotyping, contempt for, and avoidance of older people.” He warned that people uncomfortable with the aged also feared their own aging, leading to a pervasive Peter Pan-like culture in pursuit of eternal youth.
I’d say he called that one right. And true to form, we have an entire industry, and a lucrative one, devoted to maintaining youthful bodies and faces long past their expiration date.
Last month the World Health Organization released a Global Report on Ageism. The 200-page report outlines how ageism affects both young and old, and it calls for changing attitudes worldwide. Alana Officer, who leads WHO’s global campaign against ageism, says ageism is highly prevalent but, unlike racism and sexism, “is socially accepted and usually unchallenged, because of its largely implicit and subconscious nature.”
In other words, as Marshall McLuhan once put it, “Someone said once we don’t know who discovered water, but we are pretty sure3 it wasn’t a fish.”
According to Officer, the stereotyping is largely negative, “with older age typecast as an inevitable decline in physical and mental capacities and a period of dependency.” As we age, she says, we experience prejudice from others, “but also from ourselves.” We unconsciously internalize , society’s negative attitudes and stereotypes towards elders. She adds, “This helps to explain why older people often try to stay young, feel shame about getting older and limit what they think they can do instead of taking pride in the accomplishment of aging.”
Ageism has significant impact on our health, longevity, and participation in society. One study found that people with negative attitudes on aging recover more slowly from disability, live an average 7.5 years less, and are less likely to be socially integrated than those with positive attitudes. Ageism also impacts policy because it limits the way problems are framed and the solutions offered.
If that sounds a bit wonky, I invite you to listen to this 2017 TED talk by Ashton Applewhite, a rousing call to arms to end ageism in all its manifestations.
For my part, I’m not calling anyone to arms. But I do think ageism – just like racism and sexism – needs to be understood because of the ways it impacts on our lives and affects our choices. In particular, because it is so pervasive in our culture as to be almost invisible, we need to be aware of ageism’s faulty assumptions about us, so that we don’t unconsciously imbibe the poison and limit ourselves in what we dream and believe we can do.
I’ll share some additional thoughts about ageism next week.
On “Am I Losing My Mind?”
J.O. writes, “I've got the same fear. My Dad's older brother succumbed to Early-Onset Alzheimer’s in the 1980s. He was only in his 50s. Over the years, a whole branch of his family – his aunt and nearly half of her 12 children – have died of this dread disease. I've also lost several older friends to it. They were all so vibrant - smart, witty, funny, and lively. This made the illness that much more cruel. But their memories are a huge blessing.”
M.L. writes, “You've been reading my mind. It's very scary to have these thoughts, but most of the time I can successfully convince myself to send my thoughts in a different direction. If it is to be, it will be, no matter how much I project into the future and worry. I need to take advantage of this time to enjoy the health I have now. It's great to see your dry sense of humor still there, even if it is about Alzheimer’s.”
M.T. writes, “I was convinced for years that I was going to turn into my Aunt Bobby, but by the time she did contract Alzheimer's, I'd realized that I wasn't her after all. With her experience of it, I also learned that the disease affects each person differently. For her, it was an ironic blessing, since her otherwise impressive memory had served mostly to torment her during her life. Once she forgot and let go, she was much happier. On the other side of the equation, my greater fear – more than what would happen to me – was what would happen to my parents. I feel so very lucky that both of them retained all their marbles. Thanks for sharing this topic.
M.T. also shares the review of a neuroscientist’s book about memory, whether to worry about it, and strategies to preserve it. https://www.newyorker.com/recommends/read/a-neuroscientists-poignant-study-of-how-we-forget-most-things-in-life
On “Don’t Be Duped (Like I Was)”
J.H. writes, “[My husband] did the ‘pay the Indians to screw up his computer.’ I had to change dozens and dozens of passwords We also get calls from Indians, which we hang up on.” Also, she notes, the mother of her co-worker “got the kidnapped grandkid one. It’s all alarmingly common. Good that you’re shining light on it.”
M.S. writes, “I recently had the ‘Amazon’ text about the $499 purchase come my way. Dumbasses! I’m smarter than that! (I hope).”
Thanks for your comments! Please continue to share your reactions, as well as your thoughts on the issues that are top of mind for you.