Carol Cummings, RN, Expert on Aging Well

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28 March 2019

Why is old age often the butt of a joke? Our culture has decided that making fun of someone’s race, disability or gender is inappropriate, but age remains in the "safe zone" for ridicule.  Maybe it’s because I work in the senior living industry, or maybe it’s because I myself am aging (aren’t we all?!), but I am passionate about raising ageism awareness. According to the World Health Organization, ageism is prevalent in high-income countries, like America, where youthfulness is worshipped. But as I add another candle to my birthday cake each year, I have to wonder why we aggressively dismiss our own future.

Ageism as a Personal Battle

Let’s start with my own aging concerns. When my gray hair started showing, fears of being seen as irrelevant and unwilling to change crept in. It’s one thing to be seen as being “old” by your grandkids, but it’s another to fear that mentality at work. Considering I work in senior living, I like to think our view of older workers is positive. But this isn’t so true in other places like Silicon Valley or local TV news where ageist employment practices are reported.

Many of my senior friends and family experience the same feelings of irrelevancy and exclusion from everyday events. I have a 94-year-old friend who is a delight to be with. She is smart and has a wicked sense of humor. She told me about attending a dinner party at the home of her son’s friends. After dinner, the younger generation retired to the living room and engaged in post-dinner conversation, leaving my friend and another older woman alone in the kitchen. The other woman noted that, “those kids have no idea what they are missing,” which crushed them both. Feeling left out and unwanted isn’t uncommon and they both admitted they received similar treatment in other situations, leading to loneliness and low self-esteem. Over time, those feelings can wreak havoc on overall health and well-being.

Ageism’s Roots in False Beliefs

The experience of ageism, no matter when we encounter it, has at its core the same false beliefs: older people have less value, are less relevant, and are riddled with debilitating health issues. These stereotypes are rampant and largely accepted in American society. In fact, they are fodder for advertisers, comedians, even the everyday person. Consider recent media treatments like this Chevy Super Bowl commercial that plays on the stereotype of older people as being hard of hearing and cranky. E-Trade’s commercial entitled “This is Getting Old” depicts older adults who are ridiculous characters who have to work because they need the money. Even Saturday Night Live gets into the act with their Alexa Silver parody about how older adults interact with a voice-activated assistant.

I admit I have laughed at some of these, but when watched through the lens of ageism, they truly aren’t funny. Not all seniors are deaf. Why can’t an 80-year-old DJ in a night club? Many seniors enjoy using technology and smart devices. Imagine if we substituted another minority group for older adults—women, African Americans, or gender non-conforming. Not only would there be a giant backlash, but the humor would be lost.

Ageism’s Effects on Health

In her book This Chair Rocks, famed ageism activist Ashton Applewhite says that ageism is prejudice against our future selves. Ageism is not only wrong for human dignity, but it is also bad for all of us as individuals. Research shows that those who have a negative view of aging are less healthy as they age.

The healthcare industry isn’t immune. According to the American Society on Aging, ageism in healthcare puts older adults at risk of under treatment. Physicians often have a, “If you’ve seen one 85 year old, you’ve seen all 85-year-olds” attitude that suggests a lack of individualized care and attention. Many doctors treat (or don’t treat) patients based on chronological age only and may discount symptoms as being just a normal part of aging.

Becoming Part of the Solution

I believe that the first step for all of us is an awakening to the prevalence of ageism in our culture, even in ourselves. To awaken is to become suddenly aware of something. Awareness leads to action. When you hear an ageist remark, refuse to let it go. Write to editors and advertisers if you see something ageist.

And for heaven’s sake stop laughing at ageism. Your future (or current) self will thank you.

Be well on purpose!

 

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