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!