“How are we doing today, Barbara? What can we do for you?”
“Now don’t you worry, dear, someone will be with you right away.”
“Are you sure you don’t need any help, hon? Here, just let me get that for you. . . “
“You’re how old? No, you’re not! I would never have guessed!”
“You are so brave! I could never do what you’re doing at your age.”
Ageism is so common, and so ingrained in our society, that most people never think about it, or recognize it when they see it much less when it is part of their own behavior. How many times have Internet memes gone viral showing someone of advanced age doing amazing dancing or accomplishing some impressive sports feat that most people half or a third of their age couldn’t do on their best day? The comments are all “ooh” and “wow” as if this is some incomprehensible oddity. Of course, great achievements should be celebrated, but the fact that older people are engaged in all kinds of activities is not as rare or surprising as most people think.
As we know, ageism is product of our modern world, which, as with many other things, is constantly sending out conflicting messages. “Sixty is the new forty! Live longer and still be beautiful! You can still be productive after retirement!” The American Association of Retired Persons, now officially known simply as AARP, is the largest promoter of commercial anti-ageism. Reading their magazine and other materials, you could easily come away impatient to join in order to reap all the wonder benefits of entering the world of the over-fifty generation. They are also the most powerful lobby for older Americans, and to their credit, are an important Congressional watchdog in Washington, although it remains to be seen how effective they will be in this new anti-everyone administration, especially when a large number of their membership voted for the President.
This commercial anti-ageism, with all its bell and whistles of happy, mostly white, moneyed couples enjoying themselves in beautiful sunny post-retirement settings, advice on how to best invest funds to assure the highest returns, later-in-life job and volunteer opportunities, masks the real face of ageism that modern life has brought to many Americans. This is especially true for women, especially women who outlive their spouses, the case with most married women.
The intersectionality of ageism is another aspect that is never acknowledged beyond the nods to sexism and racism which are unavoidable due to the blatant statistics. The reality is that ageism, sexism, and racism are all inextricably linked – which is not to say that white men can’t experience ageism, of course they can and do – but that the institutionalization of this intersectionality results in the attitudes that have marinated the culture in ageism.
Older people used to be treated with respect and care, as cherished repositories of history and wisdom. In the past, elders were venerated leaders, were cared for into old age. Modern urban capitalism turned the elderly into superfluous appendages of upwardly mobile families and the butts of jokes on TV and in the movies. It is hardly surprising that these attitudes carried over into everyday life and the way older people are addressed and treated, even by people who mean well. When I talked with friends about this, one of the things everyone agreed on is that service people are the worst, and by that, we mean the most patronizing and least likely to treat older people with respect. One friend said she hates it when she goes to the doctor’s office and everyone addresses her by her first name, as if she were a child. She’s eighty-three years old! Why doesn’t she say something? “Eh, what’s the point? They all do it and it’s not worth getting on their bad side.” “We” is how adults talk to children; it’s infantilizing and offensive, and how hard is it to address someone by their appropriate title (Mr., Mrs., Ms.)? This may seem picky to some people, but it’s not only a question of respect, it’s a petty demonstration of power at the expense of others.
Here’s another example of ageism where I didn’t expect it. For the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of time around men and women in their twenties at a university as a graduate student. While I didn’t experience overt ageism, it was painfully clear in other ways. One gay white man, twenty-three at the time, was surprisingly sexist and racist, although he loudly proclaimed quite the opposite. At one point he posted something on his Facebook page that was very misogynst and I called him out on it. He was very angry with me for posting it and wrote me a long message in which he asked me to “please cool it with the male privilege stuff. . . you constantly make me and other men in the program feel uncomfortable at times because you make side ball-bashing remarks about men . . . Believe it or not, the guys in the program are not sexist. . . We all adore women and view them as equals.” (I was so relieved to find I was “adored”)!
More Radical Reads: Why the Words Stick In My Throat: Talking About Aging
While most people weren’t willing to say it as bluntly, it was clear from the writing and critiques from both men and women in our workshops of each other’s work that many of them just didn’t get it when it came to misogyny and racism. They knew the words, they knew what they were supposed to say but to me it was like what people in AA called “dry drunks,” people who stopped drinking but never really got the program.
Why do I call this ageism? Because time and time again it was clear that any effort to go beyond the superficial in calling out racism, sexism, and white privilege was met by the same response, some variation of the quote above. The implication was clear that I was overreacting if I didn’t accept the superficial discussion, because the issues had been taken care of and could we please move on.
These students were completely ignorant of all history of feminism and the struggles against sexism and racism; the concepts of what they meant were absolutely foreign to them. They met any attempt to have a deeper discussion with impatience and metaphorical eye-rolling. This is the institutionalization of ageism in the context of fundamental intersectional issues, and unfortunately it doesn’t come just from men. (Note: this is not in any way to ignore the dismissiveness toward racism, sexism, homophobia and other gender issues by women and men when younger people bring it up, however I am saying that situation is of a different character; no less a critical, obviously, but a different dynamic and a different discussion.)
Ageism can be subtle and takes on many, seemingly innocuous, expressions of concern. It goes from the personal to the political to the institutional.
On a one-to-one level, it starts with long-held stereotypes and assumptions about older persons: we’re less healthy, we’re less physically able, we’re less mentally sharp and more forgetful, we need more care and supervision, and the list goes on. One or more of these may indeed be true of different individuals, depending on their age and other conditions, but they should never be assumed to be true without direct knowledge. Let your older friends take the lead in telling you what they need, and offer to do things the same way you would for any other friend. There’s no age limit to getting by with a little help from our friends. Just as there’s no age limit on getting by with a little respect from our friends.
“How are you feeling today/how’s your health?” (Fine, I haven’t been sick – why are you asking?)
“Are you doing OK?” (Yes, why wouldn’t I be? Do you know something I don’t?)
[Feature Image: An older fair-skinned person wearing a black blouse with long red hair smiles at the camera. Pexels.com]