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My first awareness of ageism came when I was younger through the lens of Hollywood during the 1980s. At the time my grandparents were still living. By my tween and then teen standards, they were definitely “old” but they were still living very active and vital lives. In fact, most of the people I knew as old were still very much doing their thing. The films Cocoon and the Twilight Zone: The Movie segment “Kick the Can” woke me up to the societal assumptions about older adults. Both of the films depict older adults in retirement homes and communities living very limited lives due to declining health and both mostly because of societal limitations and assumptions. In Cocoon, the characters “…get their groove back…” so to speak when they swim in pool that is incubation space for alien eggs. In “Kick the Can,” the residents have an encounter with a “Magical Negro” who through a game of “kick the can” enables the residents to become children again.
It was the first time I had seen older people corralled into nursing homes. Their simple requests for autonomy were ignored, desires for the simplest of pleasures were dismissed, and their day-to-day activities shifted for the convenience of the staff and supposed caretakers. It’s interesting to think that only way they could truly be themselves was through the help of aliens and magic.
More Radical Reads on Aging – Why the Words Stick In My Throat: Talking About AgingThe term ageism was coined by Robert Neil Butler a physician and gerontologist in 1969 to describe discrimination against seniors. He was the founder of the National Institute of Aging. He defined the term as a combination of three elements: prejudicial attitudes towards seniors; discriminatory practices; and institutional practices. The term has since been extended to describe attitudes towards children and adolescents by founder of the Gray Panthers, Maggie Kuhn.
Some stereotypes that hit older adults in particular are the following:
- Older people are “past their sell-by date.” In cultures that are known to have high numbers of people living over the age of one hundred all of them have several things in common: they maintain active physical and mental lives; their diets are high if fiber, fruits and vegetables; they don’t overeat; and they are respected and integral parts of their communities.
- Older people will eventually become senile. Yes there are genetic factors that contribute to dementia and Alzheimer’s developing in older adults. However, the risk factor is less than 5 percent. More and more studies are showing that a person’s risk in developing these diseases is increased by past head trauma, lifestyle choices, and whether the person is engaged in lifelong learning.
- Older women have less value than younger women. This particular assumption is bolstered by patriarchy and Hollywood. Last year, Kyle Buchanan wrote an article which proved that as leading men age, their leading ladies get younger and younger.
- Older people don’t deserve healthcare. Many diseases that are attributed to aging are NOT caused by aging. For example, diabetes and heart disease have been proven in most cases to be due to diet and exercise. The effects of these diseases can be reversed with proper treatment in most cases.
More Radical Reads on Aging – Learning to Love It: Ageism and My Belly
Unfortunately, at my last gig in the corporate world, I became a reluctant but active agent of ageism. I was working at a small manufacturing company. When I started there, it was a family-owned business that made fertilizer. There were under 75 employees and most of them were men. The average length of service was 20 years. It was a place of work, but it was also family. Most of the employees knew one another’s spouses and kids and had been present for weddings, births and funerals. When someone got sick or family member was hospitalized, cards and flowers were sent. Co-workers would visit the sick and shut-in. It was the type of company where someone with a high school diploma could rise to the middle class. These types of companies don’t’ exist anymore.
I was the human resources coordinator. The company was bought out by a multinational firm under the pretense that things would continue with business as usual. In one of my first meetings, I was directed to pull the personnel files of most of the employees over 50 with significant seniority and instructed to terminate their employment. No one said it out loud, but the message was clear. These people were too old, they were making too much money, and were more costly when it came to the health insurance premiums.
They only offered two month’s severance and they could only get that if they agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement. One of the executive secretaries and myself helped these people put together resumes and helped them apply for social services such as unemployment. But this was right around September 11. At the time, the stock market had crashed. Most of their investments in their retirement funds were worth a fraction of what they had been before. All of them were too young to collect their Social Security. One broke down and cried, “What am I gong to tell my wife?”
There is a paradigm shift as the Baby Boomers age and own their power as they feel the impact of ageism that many argue they helped to create. There are several steps one can take to end ageism.
First, we must all become aware of ageist stereotypes.We can’t dismantle what we don’t acknowledge. Second, we must ask for and celebrate more positive images of older adults in the media.
The classic TV series, The Golden Girls, not only made me want to move to Florida but also made me look forward to my own golden years with enthusiasm. Lastly, 90 percent will be older adults barring an accident. When we engage with older adults, it’s important to take a step back and ask, “Am I treating this person they way I’d want to be treated?” Taking that moment can make all the difference in the world.