Opinion: Understanding our attitudes about age

By JEAN LEWANDOWSKI

Published: 10-06-2023 5:00 PM

Jean Lewandowski is a retired special needs teacher. She lives in Nashua.

The American Society on Aging (ASA) will celebrate Ageism Awareness Day on October 7. Modeled after the United Nation’s International Day of Older Persons (Oct. 1), Ageism Awareness Day provides an opportunity to draw attention to the existence and impact of ageism in our society.

Ageism is the most widespread and socially accepted form of prejudice. It is defined by the World Health Organization as “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudices (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.” It is so embedded in our culture that we barely notice the false characterizations and demeaning portrayals in media, the workplace discrimination, or the billions of dollars we spend on cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to avoid “signs of aging.”

Our aversion is so strong that a recent NBC poll found that 12% more respondents believe facing four-score civil and criminal indictments is less concerning than being 80 years old when it comes to fitness for the presidency.

Most of us have stereotypical ideas about aging because we grow up hearing that being older is something to be feared, and looking older is an avoidable embarrassment. While 80% of people 75 years old live independently (Administration for Community Living, 2019), we are often characterized as barely competent “geezers,” “blue-hairs,” “has-beens,” and “codgers.”

Common and treatable conditions such as hearing loss, balance issues, and osteoarthritis are seen as so pathetic, many of us avoid assistive technologies that allow us to fully participate in our world. When we’re referred to in condescending or paternalistic terms like “taking care of our seniors,” our voices become muffled, and people of all ages miss out on the insights the years offer.

We Boomers can’t deny that we’re at least partly responsible for our current youth-obsessed/age-phobic culture and are wholly responsible for the abominable sentence, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Jack Weinberg said this in 1964 when he was an activist with the Free Speech Movement and Congress of Racial Equality. He is now 83 years old.

Like most of us, he became wiser and more thoughtful over time. One of the speakers at an Elders Climate Action meeting this month was a 16-year-old high school student who brought much-needed energy and perspective to our discussion. I was warmed, honored, and strengthened because today’s younger people are willing to ignore Weinberg’s advice and forgive us our lapses. It is a joy to participate in inter-generational, cross-cultural collaborations.

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Because language shapes thought, one way to combat ageism is to become more aware of the stereotypical language we use to describe the aging experience, both personally and as a community. New Hampshire’s State Commission on Aging publishes a monthly newsletter, “Aging Matters,” which is a wealth of information of, by, and for older adults.

The October edition includes the announcement that the National Center to Reframe Aging has released a new toolkit called ”Changing the Conversation” as part of its resources on changing the language around aging. This isn’t about superficial “packaging” or “messaging.” It’s about shifting the conversation from irrelevant questions like “How old are you?” to the important questions: what are your values? What are your experiences and skills? What ideas do you bring to the table? What supports and accommodations will make it possible for people of every age and all abilities to thrive in our communities? The website includes videos, resource guides, and tip sheets.

The ASA’s Interim President and CEO Leanne Clark-Shirley writes, “We are all growing older. We can’t afford to limit ourselves and other people with… negative and harmful views, and why would we want to?” Why, indeed. The world has some big problems that demand an all-hands-on-deck approach: the climate crisis and its co-occurring problems of shortages, migration, and political upheaval; the rise of authoritarianism in America and around the world; the changes the technological revolution brings. When we let go of “too young” and “too old” and stop with the generational eye-rolling and name-calling, we dismantle unnecessary barriers to solutions.

“This Chair Rocks” by Ashton Applewhite is the book that opened my eyes to my own unconscious biases, and it is an excellent resource for understanding American attitudes about age and how our own fears and prejudices can limit us. Applewhite emphasizes the fact that because aging is the one universal human experience, it can be a powerful binding agent – the understanding and compassion needed to reveal our common purpose and realize our collective power.

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