Ageism: The Dance of Marginality and Irrelevance

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“I know I’m going to get older. I can handle that, and I even know that I am going to die. What bothers me the most, though, is the thought of becoming irrelevant.” This statement was made by a 69 year old man who is a member of my consciousness raising group.

Old people are becoming less and less a minority in our country. Quite to the contrary; today, approximately 18 per cent of people living in the United States are 60 years old and older. By 2050, people over 60 will make up over 25 per cent of the population…hardly a small minority.  When we marginalize a group of people, we are pushing them to the edge of humanity and according them lesser importance.  Their needs and desires are then ignored.  When ageism is in action, this is exactly what happens. Ageist language and media portrayals of old people encourage this marginalization.

Ageism can be very subtle, or as one of my colleagues describes it, “slow-drip” oppression.  It creeps up on us, sometimes without our ever knowing we are being oppressed until we find ourselves in the outer margins of society.

Nobody wants to be pushed to the edge of society.  Yet, older adults teeter on this edge…always dancing on the line between inclusion and exclusion.  In today’s society pride in age is hard to find.  It’s no wonder that older people often hide their true age.  Stop for a moment, and ask yourself, “why?”

Many of us tend to think of this practice as vanity, but consider that the true answer may be fear…fear of becoming irrelevant.  So, what do we do?  We drink the “Kool-Aid” dispersed by the media and the anti-aging industry; the message is, If you don’t look young enough, you too will be marginalized.  Not only is the advertising deceptive, it is detrimental to our overall health.

Not wanting to be relegated to the outer margins, we support the anti-ageing industrial complex, spending hard-earned money on anti-aging products, medical and non-medical procedures, and cosmetic or plastic surgery.  When we do this, are we just satisfying our own vanity or are we hoping to buy a few more years of relevancy?

The dance of marginality seems to start younger and younger these days, with people in their forties and some even in their thirties seeking out a magic bullet that will make them seem to appear younger than their true age.  For those of us who are older, however, one day you are a vital contributing member of society and only a few wrinkles later, you are dancing on the margins again, trying to figure out how to get back to the other side before you are turned into a trivial appendage, maybe even a burden, to the current social order.

Ageism in itself can cause a more rapid decline of our physical and mental health as we edge  closer to the end of our lives.  Researchers have proven that older people who are constantly subjected to negative stereotypes of their age cohort often internalize these messages.  As a result of this internalized ageism, their own self esteem is affected; and this leads to both physical and mental health issues.  In addition, recent research has shown that those who accept their age and feel the wonderful combination of beauty and wisdom in their own selves are mentally and physically healthier than those who feel the pressure of having to conceal their true age.  Many of us just keep on dancing.

Who is doing all this dancing?  First and foremost are the “invisibles.”  The “invisibles” are healthy people between the ages of 60 and 80 who are not ready to “retire” in the way that traditional retirement has been socially constructed.  This cohort is the most skillful at the dance of marginality; they get in a lot of rehearsal time.  They know that if they don’t enter the dance contest, they will automatically lose. And, they can lose a lot.  Mostly, they can lose their financial security and, with that, their dignity.

You may have noticed that the age of the traditional concept of old has been pushed back quite a bit, with people living 10, 15, and some even 20 years longer than previous generations. In many ways the invisibles are in the prime of their lives.  Yet, they are constantly maneuvering to remain inclusive members of society. Most catastrophic is the cold shoulder they bear from American workforce.  If they are not still in their career jobs, they find themselves traveling a road that leads them closer and closer to the margins of society.

A lovely 85 year old woman came to visit me in my office one day.  She was carrying a rather large umbrella.  “Is it raining?,” I asked.  “No,” she replied; I just refuse to be seen using a cane.”  Even at 85, she is still dancing.  To appear completely autonomous is her goal.  Afraid to admit that she may need some help, she struggles to keep up the appearance for fear that she will not be perceived as the smart woman she is.

The way our society is constructed, it takes more courage to ask for help than it does to manage on our own regardless of the consequences. It is the American way, to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and rely only on yourself to get where you’re going.  Another octogenarian told me “if I show the slightest sign of  not being able to live independently, my children will whisk me into the nearest assisted living facility.”  She knows this, and so she dare not let her age show.  She, too, keeps on dancing.

Fear seems to be the main reason why so many of us are caught up in this dance of marginality. There are other times and other places where older adults have been embraced by society.  For so many, this is no longer true.  Old people are often segregated, put aside, or discarded completely. They are often treated as if they are diseased. We need to start changing the way we view and interact with the older adults around us. Old age is not contagious.

The ageing process, including the end of life, is part of the course of the lifespan.  Ageing is not a disease to be treated; it is a gift to be accepted.  It is an accomplishment to be proud of.  Older adults should not feel as though they have to “sing for their dinner,” nor should any of us have to “dance for our dignity”.

Are Social Workers Disempowering and Contributing to Widening the Power Differential

The last place one would expect to find ageism well and flourishing is in the helping professions, particularly among those who devote their careers to working with, helping, and advocating for older adults. Yet, we often see ageist attitudes prevail in these areas.  Not unnoticed are the unintentional ageist practices in our own field of social work.  A director of casework at a large senior service agency told me, “There are social workers who come into the field wanting to ‘help’ without realizing that their attitude could be disempowering and contributing to widening the power differential.”  These social workers are over-accommodating for what they perceive as a lack or weakness among their elderly clients.

social worker and clientAs social workers, it’s easier to think of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and nationality. However, do we experience the older people we work with as “the other”? We need to understand that these people who have lived their experiences through to almost a complete life are some of the most complex and interesting people we will ever encounter. We may think we understand the experience of this “other”, but that is impossible.  The only way we can begin to understand older adults is to listen.

Listening is a primary skill when interacting with most people and is particularly salient when interacting with older adults.  There is much we can learn if we allow them to share their stories with us, but in order for that to take place, social workers and others working in the field of geriatrics need to remember these people have the same desire for autonomy and deserves respect as the rest of us. Each time we over-accommodate for a perceived weakness in an elderly client, we disempower that client a little bit more.

One of the most prevalent ageist practices that takes place in senior environments is  “elderspeak” or talking to older adults in the same way one speaks to a child.  This type of speech infantilizes the seniors with whom we interact.  Sweet baby talk does not pass muster with older adults, especially the oldest among us.  When a social worker talks condescendingly or uses “baby talk” to address an elderly person, we are guilty of making that elder feel like she is less than we are.  I once heard an aide greet my 92 year old dad with the words, “Don’t you look like a handsome young man today.”  This was executed with the same sing-song voice we would use when talking to a young child. As she walked away, my dad turned to me and said, “I don’t like that person.”

My dad resides in a senior care community where I visit quite often.  He has problems with his shot term memory, gets confused,  and cannot physically take care of himself.  Yet, he does not think of himself as less than any of the people around him.  He loves to tell stories and share experiences.  I know he will never do this with the person who reacts towards him as if he were a child.  Now, think of someone not as strong as my dad…someone frail and anxious.  This person is much more likely to internalize the baby talk and begin acting like the baby she is being told she is.

When we infantilize older adults, we are disempowering them.  We are compromising their autonomy. Another form of over-accommodating is over-helping. A friend of mine who is 79 years old experienced two strokes in her seventies.  Although she was left with some speech and mobility issues, she worked very hard to overcome these challenges.  Today she has returned to her career as a college professor and researcher and lives an dependent life.  Recently she told me about her trip to visit her daughter for Thanksgiving.

As it was, one of the guests at Thanksgiving dinner was a nurse who insisted on following my friend around throughout the day, prepared to catch her should she stumble or fall.  Knowing that the nurse’s intentions were well-meaning and not wanting to cause a scene, my friend accepted her “help” graciously.  However, she told me, “I was seething inside and desperately wanted to tell her to leave me alone!” She added,  “If I needed her help, I was perfectly capable of asking for it”. The same question arises.  Had my friend not been the strongly confident woman she is, she could have easily internalized the message of helplessness that was being covertly sent by this person who insisted on following her around.

We all know how it feels to take pride and a sense of accomplishment when we overcome obstacles in our lives.  Why would one think that need disappears when we age?  The situation above could have easily been handled by simply asking my friend if she required any assistance.  And, if the answer was “no thank you”, to accept it as the authentic answer to a heartfelt question.

These are powerful lessons for all of us when interacting with the older adults who we work with, as well as with the older adults in our lives.

The Radical Age Movement Comes Out

New York-The Radical Age Movement held its first public event last evening at the New York Ethical Culture Society.  One hundred people came out in the freezing cold to hear about what it takes to “leverage the power of age”.

The evening began with a welcome from Dr. Phyllis Harrison-Ross, Chairperson of the Social Service Board of the New York Ethical Culture Society.

Alice Fisher, founder of The Radical Age Movement, then talked about the need for people who don’t like the way that old people are portrayed and regarded in what she described as the “youth oriented culture of the United States” need to speak up.  Alice told of her deep interest in longevity and its multiple effects on society and how this led her to the founding of The Radical Age Movement.

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Founder Alice Fisher, MSW

“I came to the realization that the extra years many of us will be living are not tacked on to the end of our lives.  Rather, a whole new stage of life has opened up along the life span, and those are people between approximately 60 and 80 years of age who are still a vital and relevant part of our society.”  “We”, said Fisher who is 69 years old, “are not ready to throw in the towel.”  After being asked, “how do you change an entire culture”, her response was “with a movement.  It’s the only way we’ve ever done it.”  Right then and there the seed for The Radical Age Movement was planted.

After working for over a year with a small 10 person steering committee and launching a website a few months ago, The Radical Age Movement was ready to come out.  “When people leave their career positions, whether by choice or not by choice, they walk into a void”, she said.  “There is no role for us in society, unless we want to accept the description of old just because we are collecting social security.”  People of this age, although older, are not ready to be consigned to the rocking chair. “Nobody even knows what to call us.  Sometimes we’re the old boomers or the young seniors.  We don’t even know what to call ourselves”, said Fisher.

The original agenda for last evening’s event included a participatory demo of what it is like to be part of an age-oriented consciousness raising group.  Not expecting such a large turnout and without enough facilitators to guide the number of groups that would be necessary to run this part of the program as planned, Radical Age decided to let the program run with interactive discussion.  After a presentation about ageism by Joanna Leefer, 65, a care-giving consultant, three people gave personal testimony about their own confrontation with ageism, while two others testified to the effect that participating in consciousness raising around the topic of age has had on the way they are experiencing ageing.

Corinne Kirchner, 79, who is a sociology professor at Columbia University and  who experienced two strokes in her 70’s, talked about the way that people constantly try to give her too much help.  She described Thanksgiving dinner where a nurse who was a guest at the dinner followed her around, prepared to catch Corinne should she fall. Understanding that the nurse was trying to be kind, Corinne was very polite but “inside I was so angry that this person was treating me like a child learning to walk.”10911401_414546068714498_9154173076394596286_o

Hope Reiner, 70, the founder of “Hope Cares”, a companion service that provides one-on-one stimulation, socialization and engagement to older adults, talked about her abrupt dismissal from the consumer magazine publishing world where she worked for over 33 years. “Despite the magazines’ high ratings and high revenue and my standing as the #1 salesperson for much of that time”, she told the audience, “my career ended. I can only assume my dismissal was based on my age.”

Next it was Rodger Parsons’ turn to talk about his personal experience with ageism.  Roger, 68 years old, does voiceovers for Radio, TV, Cable commercials as well as author voiceovers for other venues. He spoke about how ageism is especially relevant in the Voice Over world and ways of dealing with it. “It is especially important to confront situations as directly as possible to get outcomes that make it clear that access to work should be based on the talent of the performer not the performer’s age.”

After each of these testimonies, lively discussions from the audience ensued. People shared their own experiences or commented on the testimony they had just heard.

Alice then took the podium and gave a brief description of the consciousness raising process that The Radical Age steering committee has been using. “The one advantage to participating in this process”, she said, is providing participants the space and time to examine our own ageist tendencies”.  “After all”, said Fisher, “we did grow up in this youth oriented society.”  The Radical Age Movement is developing a guide for people who want to start their own consciousness raising group around the topic of age.  This guide will be posted to The Radical Age Movement’s website, www.theradicalagemovment.com, in the coming weeks and be distributed at their next event on February 21st.

Barbara Harmon, 72, a speech language pathologist, and Jon Fisher, 70, artist and real estate broker, then testified to the changes that participating in the consciousness raising process has made for each of them.

Barbara spoke of how she came to accept the graciousness of those who offer her seats on crowded subways after coming to the realization that her own ageist attitude was getting in the way of her being able to accept aid when offered.  “Accepting a seat acknowledges the fact that my age is recognized; but because of the discussion and support of my peers, I now feel comfortable with the recognition”.

Jon talked about his career in the ad business where everything had to be new and fresh, including the people.  “I had the mindset that I had to look, act, and feel young; and I carried that with me into my personal life.  When I was invited to join the consciousness raising group, I really didn’t think that my ideas about ageing would ever change.  Now, I also feel more comfortable in my age.  The consciousness raising process has made a major imprint on who I am and who I am becoming”.

Remarks and conversation continued until it was time to leave.  Alice asked everyone to take a save-the-date for The Radical Age Movements next event on February 21st.  This will be a 4 hour workshop entitled “The Age Café.”  Through this process, those who attend will have the opportunity to help plan Radical Age’s agenda going forward.

Reacting to Alice’s expression of disappointment at not being able to proceed as planned, one attendee said that  the evening was one huge gestalt consciousness raising session.  Another comment by a member of the steering committee was, “I think we have the start of a real movement here.”  That expression was echoed by many who attended the event.

Consciousness Raising: It’s Time Has Come Again

Perspective

Like many women my age, I participated in the feminist consciousness raising movement of the sixties. It was a powerful vehicle for exploring our innermost feelings about being women, mothers, daughters, wives, and our role in society. For many of us it was the first time we confronted the issue of misogyny (or even knew what it meant) and, not the least, got to touch our own misogynist inclinations having grown up in a male dominant society.

Here I am over 40 years later doing the same thing. Only this time, the topic that my consciousness raising group is exploring is ageism and what it means to grow old. A main difference between our aging consciousness raising group and the feminist groups of the past is that the group is made up of both men and women. Aging makes no gender distinction, and we all grew up in this virulent youth culture that says young equals good and old equals…well, let’s say, not so good. We are a 10-person group, aged 60 to 85. We meet every week for 1-1/2 hours. In order to make it easier for the group, we meet in person every other week. On the weeks in between, we connect virtually through our computers. To our surprise, this has proved to work remarkably well. Our hope is that as we confront our own ageist attitudes we will be able to change the way we perceive aging ourselves and hopefully change society’s ageist attitude towards the old and elderly.

Ageism is an interesting prejudice. Aging is the common denominator for everyone who is born. If fortunate, we are all going to get old. We are all going to die. So being judgmental about people just because of their age, or their wrinkles, or their slower pace, is sowing the seeds for our own internalized ageism.

As we progress in our own consciousness raising initiative, we are creating a manual detailing how to start an aging consciousness raising group so that others can benefit from the work we are doing and to guide them in starting their own groups. Our experience is sometimes smooth flowing and other times bumpy. It is our intention to smooth out all the bumps before we pass the information along to others who have an interest in doing this work.

So, what do we talk about in these sessions? Sometimes we have a topic prepared so that members can reflect on it before we meet. Other times the issue that we begin talking about arises organically out of conversation…many times it is a question that someone asks or a situation in which they find themselves and feel that age or ageismis part of the problem. Recently, we spent two entire sessions on the topic of “help”…how we ask for help, how we offer help. Which is better…being independent or interdependent? Most of us were raised to value autonomy. The message was that we should be able to do everything by ourselves. To ask for help was a sign of weakness. As we age, do we still feel that way? What makes it easier for us to accept help? Many of us have experienced push back from our own parents when we determined that they could no longer function on their own.

We talk about the elders with whom we’ve had relationships and how those relationships shaped our thinking about aging. We share stories. We share our innermost feelings about our own aging. And, we talk about the advantages of being old and the contribution that older adults give to society. Sometimes we are exploring new territory, and sometimes we are looking at relics that are outdated. We’ve noted the conflation of the aged and the disabled. Does someone’s physical abilities make them either old or young? What about the older adult who has an expansive mind, always curious, always learning? Is she defined by her wrinkles or her mind? We are all guilty of agism at one time or another.

I’ll end this with a personal story. My husband and I had the opportunity to be with old friends that we had not seen for a very long time. On the way home, our conversation started something like this; “Did you see Kathy? Doesn’t she look great!” “Yeah, but did you see Susan; she is not aging well at all?” “I can’t believe Joe uses a walker to get around. He was such a great athlete.” “But then there’s Dan who looks so young for his age.” In mid-sentence I stopped myself. “Can you believe where we are going with this conversation?” I asked. “What ageists we are”. The first thing we noticed was how young or how old everyone looked. No mention of who accomplished what or overcame obstacles in their lives.

We immediately went for the jugular because we are both in the same consciousness raising group.  We were able to catch ourselves and reflect on how automatically we were equating the way our friends looked with how old they are. Why does Dan have to look good for his age? Can’t he just look good! How do we know that Susan is not aging well? Just because she has more wrinkles on the outside has nothing to do with how she feels or who she is on the inside. We just automatically went into our own ageist rant.

Would we have recognized the ageist language we were using if we weren’t part of an ageing consciousness raising group? I doubt it. Finally, from another group member who had previously told us how she detested anyone who offered her a seat on the subway because it made her feel old. After only a couple of sessions, she said, “I actually accepted the offer of a seat on the train today,and I felt quite good about it. I don’t think I would have been so gracious if we had not been discussing these issues.”

Ageism and the Anti-Aging Industrial Complex: What Does Wisdom & Beauty Look Like?

How do you feel when you sit down to unwind in front of the television at the end of the day and you are bombarded with ads that tell you to “Stop the Hands of Time with Mrs. Smith’s Anti-Aging Formula 801”?  Or, you may want to try a little cosmetic surgery to lift that chin, or maybe some Botox to iron out those wrinkles.  This reminds me of laying my head across the ironing board while taking my mother’s two-ton steam iron to my long curly hair to straighten out the curly tresses that I obviously inherited from some mutant gene, but that was in the early sixties before curls were in.

Now, I am in my sixties, and they are telling me to leave the curls while erasing the lines of wisdom and experience from my aging face. I just don’t look good enough—code for “I don’t look young enough”.  What don’t I look young enough for, I ask myself.  I am fortunate to still be part of the workforce, but maybe if I looked younger I would get that raise I’ve been wanting.  Alas, the people that pay my salary know how old I am and assume that I’m not going to make any waves when so many of my peers are shipwrecked on the shore praying that a job, or maybe a little Botox, will arrive to save them.

anti-aging-creams-1Back to the TV ads. Every time, I see Debbie Boone touting the wonders of Lifestyle Lift, a company that provides facial and neck cosmetic procedures, I wind up in front of the bathroom mirror pulling my obliging skin back to see what I would look like if I just took a little from here and a bit from there.  Ugh, I am so mad at myself for even considering for a moment to alter the face I was totally comfortable with only 10 minutes ago.

It’s all about ageism.  It’s all about the youth culture in which we’ve been immersed.  It’s all about the message from the girl whose hair was spread across the ironing board: “Do not trust anyone over 30!”  So many retouched faces that we admire are telling us that we can look younger too. But, can we really trust anyone who looks older than sixty or seventy?  It’s all so familiar. Remember all those air brushed waifs that were presented to us telling us that we also could become “walking x-rays”?  All of a sudden anorexia and bulimia became part of the American lexicon.

I didn’t know if there was a term for people who are addicted to plastic or cosmetic surgery, so I looked it up.  This is what I found:

There is not a term for the addiction, but there is a recognized psychological disorder that affects some surgery addicts. It is called “body dysmorphic disorder” (BDD), and sufferers have a distorted image of their own appearance. This is sometimes manifested as disapproval after surgery is performed, leading to another surgery to correct the apparent flaws. Because of the high costs of plastic surgery, this disorder is usually apparent only in the very wealthy.  Read More

Whew, that’s a relief.  I am definitely not rich enough to have BDD.

A number of years ago I attended a “Wise Women’s” conference and participated in a workshop led by a Native American Elder.  To this day the image of her stunning lined face stays with me.  I thought of how I hoped to look like her when I became an elder myself.

The signs of age that mark our bodies are badges of wisdom, something that we need to be proud of, not something to be to be ashamed of—and certainly not something to erase.  I don’t want to go back to the age when my skin was perfectly smooth and taut and my mind was empty.

It’s time to let advertisers know that we want to see people we can identify with—people (especially women) who look like us. Wrinkles can be beautiful and we need to create a culture that sends the message that lines of wisdom are in.

Who Is Old?

Edith Connors 77 year old body builder
Edith Connors 77-year-old body builder

Who is old?  What does old mean?  Who decides that you are old?  Who do you identify as old?

Is it age?  Do you automatically become old the day you start collecting your social security? Some people collect at 62, some at 66, and some at 70.  Or, maybe it’s the year you become eligible. Can it be the day you retire from your career job?  Or maybe it’s the day you become a grandparent.

My mother-in-law didn’t become old until she turned 90, while my mother decided she was old at 80. They self-selected when to be old. Meanwhile, my best friend who has a form of rheumatoid arthritis self-identified as old when she was only 55. So, it’s possible that old is when you need assistance with certain activities and realize that you are slowing in your performance. A 72 year old friend mentioned to me, “I can’t believe how much longer it’s taking me to walk to the office each morning. I used to be such a fast walker.“  Is she now old?

I am certain that my grandchildren identify me as old, while my peers tell me how young I look. Maybe that’s the answer. Old, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. My husband tells me I look as young as the day we met, which can hardly be true since that was over fifty years ago. Maybe we are old when our hair turns gray. Yet, I have a friend who went prematurely gray in her thirties.

Another answer might be that we are old when we start receiving senior discounts. I do have a senior Metro-Card that entitles me to use New York City’s subways and buses at half price. I have an AARP card, and I now go to movies and visit museums for senior admission rates.

Do all cultures and societies see “old” similarly?  Eastern cultures tend to value age and equate age with wisdom. Unfortunately, Western cultures put a higher value on youth. This causes many of the aging people I know to go to great lengths to appear younger than their actual age. I have an 85 year old constituent who came to see me one day carrying a large umbrella. “Is it raining?” I asked. “Oh, no”, she replied, but I refuse to walk with a cane.”

We, here in the United States and other Western industrialized counties, are experiencing a longevity boom. People here may not be perceived as old until they are in their 70s or maybe even 80s. Yet, in third world countries that are ravaged by war and hunger, people are perceived as old at a much younger age.

So, old may be determined by the place you live or the era in which you were born. My grandmother at 70 was an old woman. I am 68 and would not be described as an “old woman” by most people I know. Old can also be determined by one’s environment or the circumstances under which one lives. Those who live in poverty and those who are marginalized may not have access to good health care or healthy food. People who live in these minority communities are old sooner than those from middle and upper class majority neighborhoods.

So, it seems then that old is a socially constructed category. What old is to me may be different than what old means to you.

There is much truth in the adage, “Once you’ve seen one old person, you’ve seen one old person.” We are aging from the moment we are born; and the more we age,–the more we experience our own individual lives–the more diverse we become. Our individual lived experiences then may be the only key to determining when each of us is old.

Are you old?  If so, when did you become old?  If you are not old, what makes you see someone else as old?  Why do you think a society’s definition of old is important?

Ageism In The Workplace

If we are not welcome in the workplace and we are expected to live well into our nineties and beyond, how can we ever hope to be able to sustain ourselves financially?

Can you imagine a workforce made up of 3 generations?  I am 68, my children are in their forties, and my oldest grandchild is 17. I am one of the fortunate aging boomers who is still part of the American workforce. I have no problem envisioning a workplace where my granddaughter, my son, and I will all be participating in the growth of our nation’s economy. Yet, there is one major obstacle to achieving this goal. It is the oldest, most entrenched form of discrimination in this country. Ageism!

agediscriminationintheworkplace02Nowhere is it easier to identify ageism than in the workplace. As older workers are staying longer and younger workers enter the field, more often than not they will find themselves part of a multigenerational workforce. By the middle of the next decade, the United States will be an aging society, with more Americans over age 60 than under age 15.

What this means for an evolving job market is that there will not be enough young workers to fill entry level jobs. We will then have two choices. We can import young workers from other countries, or we can prepare ahead by accommodating older workers and encouraging them to remain or re-enter the workplace. This would be a welcoming departure from the cold shoulder that older workers receive when applying for jobs today.

Our country’s leaders are always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to planning ahead. For years and years people have been writing about the “graying of the American workforce” and the “aging tsunami”. The boomers are not coming; we have arrived!

We are healthier than previous generations, and we are living longer–in many cases, as much as 20 years longer. Yet, when we leave our career jobs, whether by choice or not by choice, we step into a void. We discover that there is no role for us in society. We become invisible. The invisible man today is not a bandaged wrapped non-body. He is an invisible somebody.

Here’s the dilemma: If we are not welcome in the workplace, and we are expected to live well into our nineties and beyond, how can we ever hope to be able to sustain ourselves financially? We have the intelligence, skills and wisdom to become one of society’s greatest assets.  Yet, without the opportunity to earn our own way, we will certainly become society’s burden. Most salient is our position as repositories of historical and cultural history and our ability to solve long term problems that younger people do not have the time for.

One excuse I hear for not keeping or hiring older workers is the fear that it will be too expensive. “They will be sick too often and, therefore, be less productive.” Not true. Older workers come with an innate work ethic. We take less sick days than our younger co-workers. We also come with our own health insurance, namely, Medicare. And, older workers are often willing to work for lower salaries as a supplement to our Social Security.

Mainly, we want to be valued and be seen as contributors to a better society, not as a drain. I wonder if those who would shut older adults out of the workforce are ageists who drank the youth-obsessed Kool-Aide that the media hands out. They probably do not even recognize their own internalized ageism. Have they thought about why they do not want a workplace filled with grey haired people? Could it possibly be the threat of having a workforce who reflect the true life process of aging that they would rather deny?

Ageism does not only affect the old. It affects our entire society. It deprives one generation the opportunity to pass on knowledge to the next, while depriving the younger generation the opportunity to learn and build on that knowledge.  It deprives an older generation the opportunity to keep growing and learning new skills for which the young are our best teachers.

The stereotypes of older people that we all own do not match up with the reality of today.  They are out of date.  It’s time for an upgrade.

 

A Call for Radical Aging

ageing

In the 60’s, we raised our voices to put an end to racism, sexism, and to end a war.  Now, we are in our 60’s and we need to dig down deep to raise those voices again to put an end to ageism.

If there is any certainty in this world, it is that we are all journeying in the same direction.  We are all going to age, we are all going to, hopefully, get old, and we are all going to die.  How we age and how we prepare for the last part of our life’s journey will be shaped in great part by the society we live in.

Do we want to take that journey in an ageist society?  As women, do we want to remain invisible, spending time and money trying to erase the signs of old age and wisdom from our faces and bodies while hoping someone will see us and/or hear us?  As men, do we want to cling to myths of virility and strength, trying to deny the inevitable? Or, do we want to be respected, even revered, for lives lived and the knowledge and experience that comes with actively living through the many challenges we’ve faced?

As boomers and seniors, we have an obligation, a duty, to make our voices heard, speaking up for and molding the kind of society that will not see us as the “other”.  Many of us raised our voices in the 60’s to help create the civil rights movement, the anti-(Viet Nam) war movement, and the women’s rights movement.  Now, we are in our 60’s, and we need to dig deep down to re-energize those voices today to create a Radical Aging movement.

Longevity is here.  It’s everywhere.  It permeates the media, in professional journals, memoirs, movies and theatre, you name it.  More of us are going to live to be older than ever before in history, and our children and grandchildren even older. The effects of longevity are tenfold, affecting our health care choices, our work environments, and our relationships within families.  You may have already bumped into the challenges of longevity as caregivers of your aging parents who are in their 80’s, 90’s and 100’s. If you haven’t been there yet, it will, I can assure you, be one of the truly life-impacting eye openers that you experience on your life’s journey.  It is a front row seat view into a future that needs a movement to change it.

We are a generation that has lived through great societal changes, some good and some not-so-good.  Some of the positive changes still need refining, but there is no doubt that we made them happen.  Some I mentioned above; civil rights and women’s rights, and more recently, gay rights.  Our lives have been influenced and molded by constantly evolving technological innovations; we have new ways of communicating through social media.  We Skype or have facetime with our families who are more often separated by greater and greater distance.  We’ve moved from an insular world into a connected world.  Once only talked about, we can now see, often in real time, how what we do in our personal lives impacts other lives, not just in our own communities but on a world-wide level.  Medical research and the attending technology have contributed to the unprecedented length of life, and this is presenting challenges that are only first being addressed.  On every level and in every walk of society we are finding choices that were never available before.  We spend a lot of time trying to determine what is available to us and what we really want.

Yet, as we celebrate longevity, we stigmatize growing older.

It is time to change the accepted language of aging. All the descriptive aging stereotypes that pervade our culture and collective conscience need to become non-p.c.   We are so much more than boomers, seniors, senior citizens, aged, ancient, crones, oldsters, codgers, golden agers, geezers, old-timers, grannies…and here’s on I just came across…coffin dodgers.  Any of these sound like compliments?  We live in a culture of age and death deniers.  Putting old people “out to pasture” is no longer an acceptable metaphor.  Neither is putting them out to the golf course, shuffleboard, nor bingo.

As we age we become more and more diverse.  The longer we live, the more opportunity we have to be shaped by our life experiences which render us more dissimilar than alike.  One size does not fit all.  There is diversity in how we age biologically, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.  We bring “value added” to society.  Yet, in a culture of ageism and denial, to be recognized for that “value added” is an uphill struggle, and it is time for us to take up the struggle.  We proved in the past that we can effect change, and we are just going to have to dust off those banners and slogans, put on our most comfortable walking shoes and get out there again.

I leave you with this anecdote from my own experience:  I’m 60 years old and sitting in a class on public policy for the aging.  Next to me is this very sweet 20-something young woman, arduously taking notes and following the instructor’s every word.  After hearing the statistics on senior health issues and senior poverty, she turns to me and says, “I’m never going to get old.”  My response is, “I really do hope that you will.

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