New Yorker Magazine published a cartoon in a March, 2017 issue that revealed the underside of our attitude toward aging. A husband and wife are standing in line to buy movie tickets. The woman says to the cashier, “One senior ticket and one refuses to accept he’s a senior.” The cartoon is labeled Last Laugh: Funny but true.
No. It’s not funny.
What is says is that this man doesn’t like where he is in life. He feels ashamed. He doesn’t like himself. He thinks people are laughing at him. He is not alone. Most of us are victims of ageism‑—a negative attitude towards older people. The message we hear is that aging makes us less than, weaker, and incapable of being productive. Often, we are thought of as burdens to be cared for financially and physically. ‘Codgers’ who repeat stories, can no longer keep up, and offer nothing to society. It amuses me that ageism is a prejudice that everyone will face sooner or later if they have the good luck to live long enough. Sooner or later we will all be victims of this kind of prejudice if it continues.
Ageism operates like any other bigotry. It isolates people by identifying certain characteristics that are perceived by the majority as negative qualities. It singles physical characteristics that differentiate us from the rest of the population —qualities we can’t change. It is who we are. Yet society’s negative judgment segregates us, reduces our privileges, downgrades our legislative protections, makes fun of us, and rejects, or worse, does not notice our contributions to society.
Even though people over the age of fifty are the largest and the fastest growing cohort of our population, we are disempowered by rampant negativity and crippled by ageism that is so endemic in our culture that it is viewed as normal and hardly noticed.
But its damage continues to grow, especially since we Olders (as opposed to Youngers) live an extra thirty years longer than our mothers and fathers. Instead of enjoying our longevity, we experience fear, self-degradation, and shame. Even worse, the gifts that we contribute are ignored, unexplored or hidden rather than celebrated.
The slew of anti-ageing products advertised daily in every media try to convince us that we will be more acceptable if we just buy their products to make us look younger, skinnier, have smoother skin, and dress in clothes designed for 30-year-olds.
Time was when Olders were honored, respected for their wisdom and the historic perspective that they contribute to understanding the world. Now those times are coming back. More and more exciting contributions by Olders are being noticed. Tony Bennett, Gloria Steinem, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush are excelling at creative endeavors. Can we learn from them?
Evolution teaches us that our extended life span is nature’s way of expanding human development. Scientists are investigating the increased ability of our brains to integrate lifelong experience and increase our intuitive abilities. It is bonus time to cultivate understanding and explore our creative abilities. Winston Churchill was sixty-five when he began his five-year ”walk with destiny” as British Prime Minister during World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt, humanitarian and wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the UN Commission of Human Rights for five years at the age of sixty seven and wrote On My Own at the age of seventy-four. Poet Robert Frost presented his poem “The Gift Outright” at age eighty-seven at President Kennedy’s inauguration. Martha Graham, the indisputable high priestess of modern dance, continued to perform until seventy-five, choreographing her last work at the age of ninety-six. Added years give us time for creativity and to distill the wisdom made possible by living consciously and creatively.
Prejudicial treatment of Olders damages our quality of life and denies younger generations the legacy of our advice, experience and creative gifts.
What can we do? I propose that we stand in our power and take pride in our accomplishments by:
- Sharing our wisdom;
- Reducing our fear of ageing by living creatively;
- Lobbying for protection of our rights and entitlements such as healthcare, Social Security and Medicaid;
- Glorify older role models;
- See beauty in ageing;
- Lobby to broaden the marketplace to focus on Olders.
More and more information is now available about ageism:
This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite is a wonderful place to start. Then on to A Long Bright Future by Laural Carstensen, Ph.D,, and Human Values in Aging internet newsletter by Harry (Rick) Moody, and The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America by Ai-Jen Poo.
Elders evoke our higher potential by widening our vision of human unfoldment. We contribute wisdom, balanced judgment, and enduring values to a society whose moral and spiritual foundations have eroded over the past several centuries.
We act as representatives of Earth’s long-term investment in evolution and as guardians of the commonwealth of species fighting for survival in the natural world.
…Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
We have much to do to prepare for the “elder boom” that is fast approaching. Let’s get to it!