Our Own Paths, Without Apology!

For this week’s blog, I’m going to take a detour from housing issues to discuss a widespread problem that impacts the lives not only of older adults, but of those around them. Ageism. Not only is ageist behavior annoying, but it also severely impacts our health and well-being, and even our opportunities to become who we want to be in our Third Chapter lives.

We all can readily provide instances of really annoying ageism. “You haven’t changed a bit!” from the person who hasn’t seen you in 30 years. The “Let me help you, honey,” overly-helpful stranger who starts “assisting you” when you don’t need it and didn’t ask for it.

There’s “benevolent ageism,” a common occurrence in doctor’s offices and senior communities. A direct care worker or medical professional will treat a resident or patient in a drippingly “nice” way, e.g., using elderspeak: “How are you today, Sweetie?” Or a physician or nurse will blame every issue you raise during a doctor’s appointment on “Oh, that’s just old age,” without even considering what other factors may be causing your health issue.

Those examples are infantilizing and making false assumptions based on age. And these don’t even include the more systemic forms of ageism. During a keynote address during a recent symposium on ageism in Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Tracey Gendron, chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Gerontology and director of the Virginia Center on Aging, discussed the ramifications of ageist behaviors.

Words Matter … and are costly!

In today’s corporate and media-driven anti-aging industry, institutional ageism is encouraged, and internalized ageism has dire medical consequences. “It is within the culture to ‘look and feel younger’ or ‘look your youngest,’” Gendron told attendees. “Old hag versus young, beautiful princess.” And it’s not a new problem. A 1959  cover of Ladies Home Journal, for example, sported a headline, “How to look and feel 20 years younger.” That’s institutional ageism.

The effects of ageism are exacerbated because we internalize them. Decades of research, Gendron said, have shown that people who internalize ageism have worse health, more depression, and live an average of seven fewer years than people without the internalized stress of ageism.

The problem is multiplied by the healthcare industry. Studies indicate that $63 billion is wasted each year due to ageism that results in misdiagnoses, infantilization, overtreatment, and undertreatment.

Researchers in a 2022 study found that ageism shortens lifespans, hinders recovery from health issues, accelerates cognitive decline, and increases anxiety and depression. People internalizing ageism feel invisible, devalued, marginalized, overlooked, disrespected, and depressed.

Deeper Damage Done Daily

Ageism also actively works against adults in elderhood from pursuing activities that interest them. Think the current TV commercial where two older adults are complaining about yet another ad showing “happy seniors, gardening and participating in aqua aerobics.” One size fits all. No other options.

And when ageism is combined with multiple oppressions — racism, ableism, sexism, and others — the effect is even more damaging. For example, Gendron cited a North Carolina study showing that people in a predominately white, more affluent neighborhood lived 20 years longer than nearby neighbors in a less affluent, African American neighborhood.

The key, according to Gendron, is disrupting ageism. Even in our own speech. Except within a group of same-aged people, avoid the “senior moment” jokes. Simply say, “I forgot.” Pausing and evaluating is part of the answer: “Is the thing I’m about to say or do ageist? Am I making an assumption or judgment based on age?” This evaluation leads to changing the words or action. In other words, reframe ageism. And don’t back down.

It’s important, said Gendron, to “say what you mean.” In other words, instead of someone having a “young spirit,” what do you really mean? That the person is energetic? Say so. Shift the comment to one that is more accurate and not age-centered. And one other thing to note: a disparaging thought about a millennial can also be ageist. It goes both ways.

We Are The Gift That Keeps Giving

Third Chapter Living is all about growing into a vital and vibrant elderhood. Besides, combatting ageism benefits the whole of society. The universal design movement, for example, is geared toward accessibility for all and helping people of all ages and abilities thrive. It’s a response not only to ageism, but to its intersection with other institutionalized oppressions.

And though the change may be slow, institutional ageism can be overcome by a grassroots approach, one person at a time, one physician at a time, one neighbor at a time.

Aging is fluid, and defined by each individual. It’s up to each of us to create our own definitions of successful aging, and what it means to thrive in our Third Chapters. The anti-aging industry doesn’t define it for you.

As Gendron said, “Remember: you are all the ages you’ve ever been and will become. We are all role models for aging.” Let’s enjoy our most vibrant and abundant Third Chapter!

Third Chapter Living celebrates, challenges, informs and promotes conversations about housing issues affecting the Baby Boomer Generation. Check out our website to learn more about our work on aging in place options. The author, Reese Fayde, is a dedicated problem solver and skills development coach. She’s passionate about working with change-makers — individuals committed to transforming the status quo, whether it’s in their industry, community, or organization.

2 Comments

  1. Leonard E. Mc Gee on October 16, 2023 at 9:35 am

    Thank you for the refreshing view. Clearly this highlights the segmentation for how we need to value how and what we accept for others that promote less than positivity.

    This was much enjoy reading.

    Shalom

  2. Negash on October 16, 2023 at 7:55 pm

    Wonderful article. Our culture worships youth at the expense of the elderly. Fighting back against ageism empowers us all

    Negash

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