I have a friend (let’s call her Bev) who is smart, stylish, has a razor sharp sense of humor, and the energy of a Jack Russell terrier on Red Bull.
In January, we went downhill skiing together. During our last run of the day a snow squall kicked up, creating whiteout conditions. We were about halfway down the mountain at the time. Bev is an excellent skier. I am not. Bev (who is in great shape) can ski all day. I cannot. I am usually quite composed in crisis situations. On this particular day, I was not. My legs were rubber, my ski mask was iced over, and I’m pretty sure I was hyperventilating.
Bev, thank god, took charge. With infinite patience she guided me down the hill, stopping every few minutes to make sure I was OK. When we finally made it back to the ski lodge, she sat me on bench by a heater and went off to find some hot chocolate. A man sitting next to me watched her walk away then turned to me and said, “I think it’s just great she’s out here.”
I nodded and smiled politely. It took me a few minutes to figure out he was commenting on her age. See, Bev is eighty-three. I guess because I know her, I don’t see her as a particular age. I just see her as Bev, my friend and (at that moment) the woman who got my sorry ass off a scary mountain.
I only started to appreciate how our society views age after hanging out with Bev. The woman is a recently published author, has three university degrees, and does the New York Times Crossword everyday. Even so, I have witnessed post-pubescent store clerks lean down to her level (Bev is short and she will kill me for writing that) and pitch their voices higher when they speak to her; almost as if they trying to communicate with a small child or a Pekingese. Drives me crazy. Bev just smiles. She doesn’t internalize the ageist attitude that’s all around her. She knows she’s a smart and capable person.
Unfortunately, most of the world doesn’t see woman and men of Bev’s age as capable of much of anything. The negative stereotyping of older people and aging is seen in our advertising, our entertainment and even in our greeting cards. Older people are portrayed as incompetent, foolish and unattractive. They are discounted as valuable and contributing members of society. Their knowledge and life experience is ignored. Ageism, currently the most pervasive and most institutionalized form of prejudice, is alive and well in our neighborhoods.
Like any prejudice, the roots of ageism are fear and ignorance. We fear our own mortality. The elderly are visual reminders of the impermanence of life. We also have so little exposure to older generations that we have no context with which to relate them. Perhaps our modern family structure contributes to the problem. Unlike earlier times when many generations shared the same roof, today most people only see members of their extended families during holidays or during times of family crisis. Most children don’t get to spend time every day with an elderly person. They don’t grow up knowing that growing old is normal.
Ageism is usually defined by the negative attitudes and behaviors of the young toward the old. Interestingly, recent geriatric research reveals that after a lifetime of exposure to these stereotypes, elderly people are turning these negative attitudes inward to devastating affect.
One study found that older individualswho were exposed to negative age stereotypes tended to demonstrateworse memory performance, self-efficacy, handwriting, and will-to-live. In contrast,the researchers discovered that those who were exposed to positive age stereotypes tended toshow positive changes in these same areas. (Levy, Ashman, and Dror 1999).
While we can’t even begin to calculate what our society is losing today by rejecting what the elderly have to offer, it’s the danger we pose to our future selves that should be our wakeup call. By 2030, the majority of us will be over the age of sixty-five. The negative age stereotypes we have assimilated over our lifetime and have taught our children will likely come back to harm us in very real ways.
Perhaps if we start now to challenge the negative myths and associations that exist about aging, we’ll find that by the time we’re eighty-three, everyone—including us—will think it’s great we’re out here.