“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, 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 — not to mention when it’s 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 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. Of course, it remains to be seen how effective they’ll be in this anti-everyone administration, especially when a large number of their membership voted for the President.
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The AARP’s anti-ageism, with all its advertisements 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; and guidance on later-in-life job and volunteer opportunities — all of this masks the real face of ageism that many Americans face in modern life. This is especially true for women, especially women who outlive their spouses, which is the case for most married women.
The intersection of ageism with other forms of oppression is another important issue that isn’t usually acknowledged beyond surface nods to sexism and racism. However, these intersections are unavoidable, as evidenced by blatant statistics. This isn’t to say that white men can’t experience ageism; of course they can, and do. But the reality is that ageism, sexism, and racism are all inextricably linked.
Older people used to be treated with respect and care, cherished as repositories of history and wisdom. In the past, elders were venerated leaders. They 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 movies. It’s 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’ve talked with friends about this, one of the things everyone agreed on is that service workers are 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.”
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“We” is how adults talk to children. It’s infantilizing and offensive. How hard is it to address someone by their appropriate title? 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.
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, ageism starts with long-held stereotypes and assumptions about older persons: we’re less healthy, less physically able, less mentally sharp and more forgetful, and we need more care and supervision. 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.
[Feature Image: An older person with light skin, long red hair, silver earrings, and berry lipstick smiles at the camera from the shoulders up. They are wearing a black blouse. Behind them is a white background. Source: Pexels]