“Do you need help with that?” asked the pleasant teenager who had bagged my groceries. “No thanks, I’ve got it,” I replied as I reached for the handles of my canvas totes. His next words caught me by surprise. “Are you sure?” he asked with a doubtful look on his face. The first retort that came to mind was, “Do I look feeble to you, kid?” Which was followed immediately by the thought, “Oh crap, maybe I do!”
I picked up my bags with as much dignity as I could muster and left the store but the encounter left me thinking about how I see and describe myself. Am I a senior? Elderly? Old? I realized that I still think of myself as middle aged or sometimes refer to myself as “older” but never old. How old is older? And when does old age begin? I’m always taken aback when I see news articles that describe a 50-year old as elderly. On the other hand, I really hate it when I hear someone referred to as “90 years young.” What does that mean? Are we so afraid to even use the word “old?” Do we reach a certain point where we have to start reversing? More importantly, is age our defining characteristic? It appears so.
Later that week I watched my husband’s jaw clench in an effort to keep his mouth shut when our young and chipper female food server called him “sweetie” for the third time. He knew she meant to be friendly but he hated it. Our experiences are both examples of ageism—stereotyping people on the basis of their age—and it is rampant in our youth-obsessed culture. These are rather benign examples but consider the darker underbelly of the beast:
- Ageism is demeaning. Addressing an older person with names like “sweetie” or “hon” reinforces the stereotype of diminished capacity.
- Ageism is divisive. The press that’s given to older people competing with younger people for resources such as jobs and healthcare creates an us/them mentality. We have more than enough division these days without adding more.
- Ageism is exclusionary when it overlooks the many contributions people in our generation have made and can continue to make. We all know well-qualified people over 50 who have been unable to find jobs because the stereotype is that we’re out of date, slow to learn new things or not tech savvy.
- Ageism affects the quality of health care for older individuals in a medical system that emphasizes cure over care. Consider the dearth of geriatricians coming out of medical schools.
But perhaps the most insidious thing about ageism is the way it affects how we think about ourselves. We lose our abilities to think, feel and perform when we buy into the myth that’s what old people do—decline. A study that compared memory abilities of young and old Chinese and young and old Americans found little difference on the scores of the Chinese but a significant difference in the two American cohorts. This is a vivid illustration of a culturally generated self-fulfilling prophecy. Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, nails it when she writes, “Ageism makes growing older in America far harder than it has to be.”
Ageist statements are common in our language and we use them ourselves without thinking. We misplace something and chalk it up to having a “senior moment.” We send “over the hill” birthday greetings to each other. We refer to someone as being in their “second childhood” as if the only thing left to do in later years is play our days away.
Which brings us to the opposite end of the ageist spectrum: the myth we can stave off aging by being what Ashton Applewhite calls “supergeezers.” She notes, “America’s ‘can-do’ ethic can be almost as problematic as the ageist script of learned helplessness.” I’ve always found ads depicting silver-haired, fit people engaging in high energy pursuits a little disquieting although until recently I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why. Now I understand that this lofty standard makes those of us who don’t climb mountains or run marathons look like slackers. Like it’s our fault if we aren’t “successfully aging.”
All aging is “successful”—not just the sporty version-otherwise you’re dead.
Sometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact there are more years behind me than ahead. That some of my dreams will not be realized. That my body doesn’t work as efficiently as it used to and there are some things I will never experience. But somehow knowing that life won’t last forever makes it sweeter. I no longer care so much what other people think and I’m more comfortable just being me. I have no time to waste on unfulfilling tasks or relationships. I am able to stay more focused on things that matter and enjoy the present moment.
I recently read that Dame Judy Dench got a tattoo on her wrist for her 81st birthday proclaiming, “Carpe Diem.” Indeed. And I will start by seizing my own shopping bags.