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Thursday, 06 February 2014

Coming Out as Old

To be old in America is to be regularly demeaned with stereotypes and euphemisms. It goes on every day.

At the simplest level, the two words “young” and “old” work to marginalize elders. The first is a compliment - all things good, in our culture, flow from being young. “Old” is used as an insult.

There are many other ways we are trivialized daily. The word “feisty” is one of them. I'm sure you have noticed that no 20-year-old is ever feisty. That word is only for people older than 60 and it is most often used to neutralize an elder's anger so not to take him or her seriously.

Lots of old people are commonly said to be young at heart and when that happens, I silently repeat to myself, What's wrong with an old heart? It's had much more use and practice at loving and forgiving and kindness.

One of the worst ageist euphemisms operates where I live in Portland, Oregon. The local public transportation company, Tri-Met, labels people eligible for the senior discount program “honored citizens.”

Phooey. The only people – at any age in life – who should be honored are those who have done something to deserve it. Getting old, by itself, is not one of them. When everyone in a group is honored, no one is.

Age discrimination in the workplace deprives old people – often as young as 45 and 50 - of using their lifetimes of experience and knowledge. No one else knows as much as we do – individually and collectively – but employers won't hire us.

Just when I was getting really good at what I do, it was assumed I had either forgotten it all or had become an idiot overnight.

The waste to both corporate profit and the growth of our country in age discrimination is monumental and it is widespread hatred of age that keeps all our enormous wherewithal from being used for the good of everyone.

In all these and many other ways, society constantly infantilizes old people. To the culture at large, aging is a disease and old people, by definition, are sick. It assumes all old people are at best stupid and at worse senile, and that we no longer connect to the culture.

But it is not just the culture at large that demeans elders and wastes our talents. Many old people themselves are guilty of contributing to the universal disrespect of elders.

Probably the face-lift, Botox, anti-aging (now THERE's an ageist term) potion crowd are beyond redemption. But others might be educable – those who have always accepted the negative cultural stereotypes of age that we all first heard in the cradle.

Some of these are the people who make the cringe-worthy statement that they are the same person they were 10, 20, 30 years ago.

Dear god, I hope I am not. There are buckets of beliefs and attitudes and behavior I never liked that I think maybe I've overcome. At least, I hope I have grown, learned and developed through the years and that it won't stop until I die.

Insisting one is the same person as decades ago is similar to those who think it's cool to say they will never grow up. If that's you, please keep your distance. I like hanging out with adults.

Others like to say that they don't feel as old as they are. Really? Since no one has ever before been the age they are now, by definition whatever they feel is how that age feels. To think the reverse is nonsensical.

The people who engage with these varieties of denial along with the ones who just plain lie, shaving years off their actual age, are delusional.

Among the personal consequences of denial of reality, I suspect, are mental paralysis, inability to move forward in life and general stagnation – becoming stuck in eras past. Not to mention looking foolish to the world.

There really does come a time when pretending – with yourself or anyone else - to be younger than you are is just undignified.

Ageist and discriminatory attitudes toward elders will not end until we demand them to stop. We need to be the agents of change for ourselves. That means we must accept our own aging, not sugarcoat it and accept the losses that come with years with whatever grace we can muster. Then move on.

No one else will respect us until we do.

One way to help effect that change is for each of us “come out” about our age at every opportunity. Take a leaf from the beginnings of the gay pride movement: “I'm old and I'm proud.” “I'm 72. Does that bother you?”

Call out anyone who stereotypes or trivializes elders wherever you find it. Write letters to newspapers and websites when they do it. Don't let TV shows and YouTube videos get away with ugly, ageist jokes.

You don't have to write lengthy diatribes. A couple of sentences will do the job. It's particularly effective online in comments below articles, stories and videos. People do read them.

So come out to them. Confront them. And tell their behavior, bad jokes, language are not acceptable. Pay particular attention to elders who are in denial.

It does matter what people say about us. Prejudice against elders allows such things as Social Security and Medicare cuts to happen. It makes it easy for people, as all over the media this week, to blame all the ills of our country on an aging population. None of this is true.

So come out, come out wherever you are and take stand for elder equality. You could start below in the comments section.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Janet Thompson: Quarantine!


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Well said.

What we don't realize when we start our careers is that forcing turnover is a cost-cutting strategy. Corporations are numbers driven. Unless you are at the top of the pyramid, you're likely to get eased out in favor of lower cost, less experienced people. Age and higher costs tend to be highly correlated.

The husband of a friend of mine is going through this now. A teacher friend of mine felt her appearance limited her ability to get a job. An artist friend said the same as her teaching brings in a really good sum. Personally, I'm selfish and would like to have a chin again, but it doesn't matter. To them it did, and I believe fear was a major factor in getting their face lifts.

I really don't think anything can be done without a seismic shift. If you study popular culture from the 30s, 40s, and 50s right up to the youth movement, older people were accepted in society. In old movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood you will see older couples dancing in the nightclub scenes and all the party scenes. The writers, hairdressers, designers and backstage workers in Hollywood were often much older. Music was not directed only to younger people.

I found some old insurance company photos from the couple who used to own my house, the secretaries and many employees were well into their 50s and 60s back in the day.

The main problem isn't that facelifts are popular - they don't work by the way, you just look odd as well as older. The problem is that we have erased all older people from society starting about 1965 or so. We have no 50+ women in the media without facelifts, there aren't any. I can't see the pendulum swinging back anytime soon, it isn't happening for the boomers so don't see any hope for a change.

I also want to dispel this myth that single payer insurance will end job discrimination - it doesn't. I live in Canada and we have just as much work ageism as you do even though the employers don't have huge health care insurance bills to worry about. Ageism is TO THE BONE now.

Age is subjective. If you are a two year old, 10 is old. If you are 82, 60 is young. And then there is the phrase, "He thinks like an old man". How exactly does an old man think?, and finally, my most non-favorite word when describing an older person is "spry" as in "He's 75 but he's spry for his age". What the heck does "spry" mean?

People need to remember the old saying: Just because there's snow on the roof doesn't mean there isn't a fire in the furnace.

"Face your foe . . ." "preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies"

Yes, you could remind them of your agility and vast knowledge and years of skills - but doing so, however, simply fuels their envy. Try it - you'll see what I mean.

Leave any situation where this atmosphere exists - you'll live a little longer.

Once you've left your job and taken your k/s with you as you walk out the door - wait and see how long it takes before they call you back to "figure out how that program works". That in itself will remind you of the friends(?) you once had.

I've been calling myself 'elderly' for three-four years now and it's quite amusing to me how many people will admonish me not to do that. I didn't think of it as "coming out as old" but I guess that's exactly what I've been doing. LOL

Jean...
I often rail against the word "elderly" and will continue to do so.

Elderly implies frail and cognitive decline. Even the traffic signs near places where old people cross the street labeled "elderly crossing" show an image of a bent over old person with a cane.

Here at TGB we advocate for "elder" in place of elderly and increasing numbers of media and organizations of and for old people are switching to elder. In additon, like TGB, these groups are starting to leave "senior" behind in the dust too in favor of elder or old person.

My dilemma is how to respond to those who call me sweetie or young lady in an effort to be kind and friendly. Suggestions?

Ronni...good to see your stand about elderly. I just told a friend that I am older, but don't see myself as elderly because I am not infirm in any way. But, I do like elder which implies wisdom. Thanks!

Meg, I have a suggestion for you. When a stranger calls me "sweetie" I tell them that I know they mean well, but I am not their sweetie. And when they call me "young lady" I don't hesitate to inform them that I am certainly not young and am proud of being old. After that they may think twice before using that term again.

If you laugh and are not belligerent when you correct them they usually take the rebuke with grace.

Sweetie, darling, young lady? I'll take them all--they are meant in kindness. As far as respect goes--is there any for anyone these days? Pity the celebrity that hopes to live a private life--while many deserve the back-handed insults freely given (and some deserved) most would like to get comments solely on their performances. The real respect that should be given these days and many times is not should go to our Servicemen and women both active and retired. It is shocking to me that their retirement pay should be reduced without the public rising up in arms! Why not
reduce Congress' or the President's ? All of these should go long before our volunteer troops! Yes, I'm
more than fed-up with it ALL!
So disappointed with everything to do with our government and what goes for public life!

I had just begun to catch up on past NY Times book reviews and there came something pertinent to this discussion. I am struck, but not surprised by, Fay Weldon's obvious ambivalence here, but I also like her conclusion. The old/young debate continues. Here's the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/books/review/writer-of-a-certain-age.html

As to the label "feisty," I use that all the time regardless of age, and have never connected it exclusively to the old. For me, it is a great compliment.

Bruce Cooper's "spry," on the other hand, I would connect to age, usually because it is coupled with "old."

When a twenty-some male teacher in my school district referred to me as "young lady", I looked at him quizzically and deadpan asked him if he was having trouble with his eyesight.

"Just when I was getting really good at what I do, it was assumed I had either forgotten it all or had become an idiot overnight."

I think there is another dimension to this too. At least it seemed that way when I was cut loose back in 2009.

"Old" people are less unwilling to tolerate pretentious people just to humor them, which, let's face it, we meet a lot of in our work places. So get rid of the older, more critical person and bring in someone more naive who others can brow beat more easily.

And oh yeh! Pay them less for the privilege of treating them as such.

It seems extremely likely that in 2016, this country will elect a 70 year old woman as President. (I'm not thrilled about this, but I don't expect the alternative will be acceptable.) I wonder how this development will effect cultural agism. Opponents will want to go hog wild agist on her, but may be impeded by the advanced age of their base.

All this could lead a a shake up in how the culture deals with age. Is this a good thing? Very likely only if some of us work to make it so. Keep preaching, Ronni!

Amen and well said! It is a matter of coming out with elder pride. Your words always fortify my resolve to be who I am.

I do resent being called "young lady." No matter how sweet the smile that accompanies the words, it is patronizing. The same way such talk is when said to a baby who is helpless and stupid at that age.


Where to start? I hate the words "feisty," "spry," "senior citizen"--and worst of all--"honored citizen." What on earth does age have to do with citizenship? Where are the junior citizens?

I agree that we need to push back when we encounter ageist language. A few years ago when I was going through security at an airport, the TSA guy said,"How are you, young lady?" I said, "I'm fine, and I'm not young."

We need to do what we can to change attitudes and language about aging. Remember decades ago when jokes about women drivers were considered hilarious? When's the last time you heard one of those?

Revel in your own time. I meet people my own age or older who I don't have time for. Yet I meet people 40 years younger that remind me of me when I was that age (sometimes that's scary) If someone is a pain at 70 then there's a good chance they were that way at 20. Being a veteran (Vietnam era or what ever I'm called now a days)The first time someone thanked me for my service (about 5or6 years ago) I laughed and said gee no one was thankin me 40 years ago. So ageism is just one of life's indignities. And PS if a twenty something waitress wants to call me sweetie then Daddy is going leave a good tip:) And as far as older women lookin good HAVE YOU SEEN LAUREN HUTTON? WOW PERFECT!

Be All YOU Are, Be Yourself,
Everyone Else Is Taken!

Reality IS A Figment of Imagination!

THERE IS NO GENERAL REALITY!

You have perhaps already written about this, but what in your mind are the bands of old? I'm 57. I like to call myself old, but people always pooh pooh me, as though it is something bad I'm saying.

And I know that I'm in fact jumping the gun.

The one thing that I do hate is being called "Miss." "Ma'am" will do just fine. Do they think I don't know they see my gray hair?

Living in the South exposes me to lots of women who call me "Sweetie" or "Honey" or "Young lady." It sickens me.

Well said! Is there any way to get "Coming Out As Old" picked up by major media for nation-wide distribution?

I live in a city whose population skews young and find it hard to get the "old and proud" message across.

Be nice when this isn't a problem anymore, and I think this will happen. Attitudes are changing...about gender, lifestyle and lots of other things.

Not happening fast enough, though.

I agree that elders need to push back when we are disrespected and discounted. That said, one reason I'm reluctant to be labeled or categorized as "elderly" or "old" (I've never liked labels anyway!) is because those terms are widely associated with physical disability and cognitive decline which, in turn, are associated with being disrespected and discounted. And the circle is unbroken. . .

Of course, some level of disability and decline will occur to all of us as we age; however, there are wide variations and our "weaknesses" are NOT who we are. Most of the suggestions for fighting back I've read in TGB are sound and useful; I've used some of them in the past or will in the future. However, our society and culture are youth-obsessed, and I don't see that changing any time soon. Still, we have to do what we can. (I hate being called "sweetie", "honey", etc. by total strangers and I agree with artfox who would like to see this article picked up by the major media!)

Point well taken on the use of 'elder' vs. 'elderly' Ronni. I am now officially an elder woman, not an elderly woman.

I've taken to your word elder in a big way since the beginning and use it often. As a blogger, however, I have something of a split personality. On my Web Teacher blog (Hi to any of you who remember my Elder Geek posts here) I don't flaunt my age because it means discrimination in that techie area of the world.

Yet I just started a new blog about pop culture and am flaunting my age by calling it Old Ain't Dead. I want to identify that blog as belonging to an elder from the first word. I definitely came out as old for that one.

Ever since I began reading your TGB I've tried to use the word old referring to myself. I don't hesitate to proudly tell my age, (78 in 6 days). People often then say, "you don't look your age", which inspires me to tell them that this is indeed what 70whatever looks like. I come out as old or elder whenever possible and without apology.

Terms of endearment from strangers usually gets "please call me M'am" from me. I recently advised a restaurant manager that he should train his servers to avoid "honey, sweetie, etc." when addressing customers" when M'am and Sir would suffice.

I hope those who expect attitudes about old people to change are right. I, for one, will do my part.

I'm 80 years old - right! not 80 years young! However I do not think "you don't seem that old" is a put down. I keep finding the increasing age nos. going up disconcerting, but then I am glad they are still going. Also, I find it hard to believe my own age. I still think I'm 37. Much slower now but otherwise not that much different. (I do find myself more tolerant of people's foibles. And having moved to the south when in my forties, I too found "sweetie" and "hon" and"darlin'" making me grit my teeth. Now I understand it is a cultural tic and meant kindly. But when I am waiting in a Dr's office and I hear someone call for Judith, I ignore it. until she catches on to find me and ask if I am Mrs ....
Life's too short to get bent out of shape by the words we are speaking of.

Funny how so many of us become unemployable in our 50s and 60s while all those rich white elders in Washington keep their lucrative jobs well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s.

And don't call me dear.

Unless you want your ass kicked from here to Mars.

Ronnie, good point about admitting our age. This evening I was volunteering in a group where the 15 year old was comparing to 17 year old, when the 26 year old weighed in with his wisdom. I kept quiet about my 67 years since I couldn't find a hook line but in the future I will make more of a point about my age to the group.
Great post.

I love to read comments on the internet. I shouldn't frequent such places, but one of the websites I read is Gawker (I know, I am sorry). Anyway, I am continually surprised (though I don't know why after all this time) at how young people are so very, very mean about older people. It is so disheartening. Recently the target was Jacqueline Bisset who won a Golden Globe. I hadn't seen her acceptance speech, but the people who had were merciless about how "crazy" she was and how horrible she looked. So, then I go and watch the video....and I think wow, she was lovely, provided a nice speech and looked wonderful! Somehow, young people have become so outrageously hateful toward older people. I hope they realize, that if they are lucky, they will be old one day too!

I hear you all! I cannot abide being referred to as "cute." I am petite, have long hair and an appropriate weight. I get "cute" pretty often, as if it's a compliment from a total stranger. Or "cutie" - even worse. This would be patronizing even to a 25 year old woman, let alone a woman who is, as I am, almost 70 years old. Dealing with this is a full-time job. Most of the time I choose to ignore it, consider the source, and then move on. The numbers and variety of ways to be demeaned because of my age (and gender) are endless. Do write those comments if you have the time and energy. But I can't promise I'll speak up and be vigilant to help the cause. It's a tsunami! Honey and Sweetie are just as bad - who calls a 30 year old or 40 year old by these terms. The word for all this is "patronizing." And who wants to be patronized?

Amen!! And I hate the people who tell me that I'm not old -- as if there's some wrong with being old! Bette Davis said, "Getting old ain't for sissies." and she was right. I celebrate each day (although some days it's easier than others) -- 35 years ago ago the doctors said that if I lived the next 24 hours, I'd be in a wheelchair for life. I'll be 67 soon and I'm & as well as can be expected & no wheelchair. My neurologist has been with me those 35 years and the last of that excellent team. I tell him that I can't go until he goes so I can tell new nurses that I met him when he had hair. We both laugh.

A book by Susan Jacoby --

Never Say Die-The Myth and marketing of the new old age ----

Is a good read on this subject--

I heard every word you wrote as I read it aloud. If I have your permission I will quote parts in presentations I give to schools, over 50 clubs, etc. on the multiple facets of aging.

One young man came up to me after one such presentation (I always tell my age at the start of each presentation) and said: but you don't look 70!

"Young man," I said, "This is what 70 looks, talks and moves like for this elder."

I am not alone.

XO
WWW

wisewebwoman...
Of course you may quote this. I am flattered. And I love hearing reactions.

LOVED this post! I never understood age discrimination - the older you are, it should assumed, the more knowledge and experience you have!

We baby boomers sort of did this to ourselves: Never trust anyone over 30! Remember that? Prior to that time, older people commanded respect just because they were older.

Today we see older people being targeted with online scams, street muggings, and a myriad of other ways.

Several years ago, I accompanied my adult son into a Best Buy to help him buy a computer. The young salesman came up to us and said, "I see you're here helping your mom choose a computer!" My son, bless him, said, "I think you just lost a sale." I looked at the young man and told him that I'd been building, repairing, troubleshooting and testing computers and software before he was born. And we left the store. Don't take it! We may have started it, but we don't have to perpetuate it.

One of the papers I read (I forget which one it was) from the UK refers to old people as OAP. Old Age Pensioners. "An OAP was robbed last night." I can't wait for the reaction from the public if a newspaper from the US does this.

Hiring and firing discrimination based on age is illegal. Unfortunately it's difficult to prove which is why companies get away with it. This is something that we older adults need to fight.

Other than that, I think this post and most of the comments simply give too much power of older people to their detractors.

Why do you care what they think? Screw them. That's my attitude. I know who I am and I know what I'm capable of. So do you.

I couldn't possibly care less about being patronized or how I'm referred to.

Agonizing over it, feeling hurt about it, getting angry when it happens . . . all of this empowers the detractors.

Let me say it again: screw them!

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