As writer Ashton Applewhite says, the trouble with ageing isn’t getting old, it’s ageism. I recently read her book This Chair Rocks which made me realise that not only does a lot of ageism go over my head, I’m pretty ageist myself.
We all are, of course. It’s impossible to live in this culture and not be. The challenge is becoming aware of it.
Ageism — like other isms such as sexism and racism — is based on discrimination and stereotyping. We lump everyone of the same age into a box and, often quite unwittingly, demean them.
Never mind the fact that the older we get the more diverse we become.
One of the obvious places that ageism shows up is in language.
Women become, for example, old biddies, old dears and little old ladies, and men are old farts, old fogies and dirty old men. Try to think of youthful equivalents.
Ashton argues that some language such as ‘the elderly’ should just be tossed out. Agreed. It sounds like we’re uniformly feeble.
Ditto ‘seniors’ and ‘senior moments.’ As she notes, when she lost the car keys as a teenager she didn’t say she was having a ‘junior moment’. Young people are forgetful too.
She’s invented the terms ‘olders’ and ‘youngers’. They mightn’t catch on either, but at least they come without baggage.
Even language that might initially sound complimentary — e.g. calling someone ‘64 years young’ or ‘young at heart’, or saying ‘I can’t believe you’re 75!’ or ‘you look great for your age’ — comes from an assumption that there’s nothing much worse than being old or, God forbid, looking your age.
‘Women of a certain age’? Ashton didn’t mention this (I don’t think), but it’s a description that actor Julianne Moore calls one of her pet peeves.
She says, “It’s as if you are saying that her age is so terrible that you don’t want to mention it. You wouldn’t say a ‘man of a certain age’… It’s not so horrible to be in your 50s — it’s not horrible at all. It’s simply part of life.”
So why become more attuned to ageism?
For one thing, if we don’t, we swallow it hook, line and sinker. If enough health professionals tell us our symptoms are ‘just age’, or they look at us dismissively and ask, “what do you expect at your age?’ we believe it.
Often they’re wrong; age just becomes a standard answer for anything they can’t explain.
But if enough ‘professionals’ imply that we’re deteriorating, we’ll treat ourselves accordingly. And does anyone really try harder if they think they’re falling apart? Of course not.
Ageism is rampant in the workforce; it’s often the difference between having a job and not having one, or feeling you need some cosmetic ‘work’ done.
Aged care is another obvious case. Ashton cites the example of nursing home residents who are given a say in their daily schedule vs being told what to do. They live longer. So do old people given responsibility for looking after a plant. That’s enough to give them purpose and purpose keeps us alive.
Ageism isn’t just about old people though. When I was 30 I thought I was adult and capable. But I regard a lot of young people as though they can’t possibly have enough life experience to know what they’re doing.
Just as well I got a wake-up call because an awful lot of public figures are now considerably younger than me.
How do we counter ageism? It starts with noticing it. Watch Ashton’s 2017 TED talk and see how many lightbulbs go off.
Here are a few initial ideas, though she provides many more.
- Be mindful of the power of the language — that we and others use.
- Cultivate friends of varying ages and appreciate their contributions, regardless of their age.
- When we’re with people older than us, assume they’re capable, not incapable, and speak to them the same way we’d speak to a younger person.
- Finally, accept our own age and be proud of it, along with the resilience and accomplishments that go with it. We can even acknowledge that ageing has definite upsides. That’s radical.
Photo Source: what now what next.com