No matter your tally of birthdays
Ageism = the last “ism” to be recognized
In our culture — not just North America, but a whole lot of the developed world — ageism is so ingrained that it’s easy to miss. We’re so used to it that we don’t even see it when it’s right there in front of us.
Take for example, the image under the subtitle of this post. I searched on my favorite royalty-free sites, using the keywords “happy old person” or “laughing old person.” I wanted to find something that portrayed someone who was undeniably and unapologetically older and who was vital, joyous, and free. I thought the pic of the woman on the bicycle pedaling out along a lovely waterfront fit the bill perfectly.
But then I took a second look at the photo’s descriptor. As you can see in the caption, the key words for this image are: park; bike; senior; lonely; cycling. Where I saw a vibrant woman enjoying herself to the full, the algorithmic assumption is that I should see a lonely senior.
If the woman in the photo had flowing blond or dark hair and was wearing shorts and a crop top revealing smooth skin, the terms “senior” and “lonely” would no more have appeared in the key words than “lagoon” or “squirrel” would have. And yet, the cyclist in question is riding toward what could be a salt water lagoon, in a park which could be assumed to contain, as nearly all parks do, squirrels.
The image isn’t expected to make us think of either lagoons or squirrels. But a lady of a certain age riding a bike solo? We’re not assumed to think: independent; active; exuberant. Nope. Instead, senior. Lonely. Sad.
This, my friends, is ageism. It’s everywhere.
And it’s a problem for everyone
All of us currently moving through life on Earth, whether with a stroller, a Tesla, or a walker, are aging. To deny that fact is to deny the passage of time, which is silly, and to deny the inevitability of death, which is tragic — because when we do that we also deny the awe-inspiring, precious, ephemeral-yet-enduring nature of life.
But from our earliest days, we are aculturated to fear aging like it’s the bogeyman. We are fed a steady, below-the-radar barrage of messages that convince us that aging is a guaranteed spiral into infirmity, irrelevance, and uselessness. We’ll be shriveled in mind and spirit; we’ll be ugly; we’ll be lonely. Probably we’ll lose our minds somewhere along the way, becoming somebody’s problem until we can be safely warehoused to await the Grim Reaper — preferably as invisibly as possible.
As we so often do with things we fear and fail to understand, we cope by employing ridicule. Older adults are the one class of humans who are still expected to withstand brutal stereotyping, derogatory terms, and cruel imagery everywhere they turn — from ageist jokes to advertising to birthday cards — without complaint. Often, they’re expected to participate in their own humiliation.
And because none of us, once we’re old enough to get those teasing birthday cards, wants to come across as old and crotchety, we often do exactly that. After all, it’s okay to take cheap shots at the elderly, because “elderly” always refers to someone older than we are. Doesn’t it? Anyway, the targets of our ridicule rarely shoot back.
Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking for all of us. If we refuse to embrace aging, or at least to become aware of our hidden biases around it, we’re doomed to a constant internal seepage of fear — fear of our own futures.
This is an especially obvious dilemma for women, whose social currency is still largely equated with dewy youth and fecundity. We can’t get to our 30th birthdays without being deluged by offers of what are literally called anti-aging products. We’re under intense pressure to somehow remain in place at an acceptable, commercially desireable age, by employing an arsenal ranging from Instagram filters to surgery.
Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with wanting to look good at any age. But “at any age” is the key: we shouldn’t be expected to look the same at age 52 as we did at age 32, anymore than we should arrive at our 32th birthdays looking like we did when we were 12.
Age discrimination cuts both ways
True, there are developmental stages in childhood, and to some extent throughout our lives, that are to be acknowledged and respected. A eight-year-old might possibly be able to handle a firearm, for instance, but in humane and functional societies they are not recruited as soldiers. In order for society to function we draw certain age boundaries which we generally accept even though they certainly don’t apply to every individual. For example: drivers licenses at age 16; voting at 18; legally ordering a cocktail at age 21.
But past a certain point, assuming someone is too young for a certain position can be as problematic as assuming they’re too old. What of the talented 23-year old attorney who is overlooked by her firm’s partners and spurned by older associates, or the young project manager who faces an uphill battle due to resistance from his team?
Early in my son’s career as an airline pilot, flying for a regional commuter line, he would deliver a plane full of passengers safely to their destination but then be unable to rent a car once he got there because he wasn’t yet 25.
Ageism is one more “ism” that divides us
From lumping all older adults into an inferior category to walling them off in “senior communities,” we unwittingly create schisms in our already fractured society. We lose the chance to learn from our elders’ experience and perspective, just as we lose the opportunity to witness and prepare for what Judith Viorst calls our necessary losses, as well as the wisdom, freedom, and joy that our later years, if we’re lucky enough to live them, may entail.
So how do we become anti-ageist?
That’s a question I’m going to spend some time exploring, so expect to see more posts on this topic. I expect I’ll uncover more questions than answers, but having the right questions is often the critical step in initiating deliberate growth.
Here’s one place I’m starting: OldSchool.info, a remarkable clearinghouse of information and resources begun by Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism activist and the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. In keeping with the principle that all ages benefit when they pull together rather than apart, a January 4, 2021 article in NextAvenue notes that Applewhite’s Old School co-founders are Kyrié Carpenter, 35, and Ryan Backer, 32. Which is, in my view, really cool.
I’ve ordered her book, and I’m going to delve into more of Old School’s toolkits and info. I’ll share with you the broad strokes of what I learn.
Because none of us are getting any younger.