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Wednesday, 06 August 2014

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

”There’s no shame in spending an afternoon on a park bench reading a novel, or watching the children play. It is expected of the elderly, even when they are in good health...But idleness is only satisfying for a while; repose soon turns into boredom.

“There is no material need to be productive [if you don't have money worries], though; nor are you expected to be productive.

"That’s the trouble with getting old: there are no expectations and, without them, eventually those low expectations are fulfilled.”

That's from a Monday story in the Montreal Gazette that doctafil who blogs at Jive Chalkin' emailed and although this wasn't the plan, it extends the theme that has developed this week of goals in old age.

If the comments in the past two days – and in general over years – are any indication, readers of this blog are a productive lot but we pull it off, I think, each by our individual efforts without help, and certainly without consensus, from society.

In fact, the zeitgeist of the United States toward old people goes something like this:

Leave the workplace (often forced)
Sign up for Medicare
Sign up for Social Security
Listen to repeated threats to cut those two programs
Die

The world of the old in the United States is a cultural no man's land dedicated to the idea that whatever knowledge and experience elders earned in their lifetimes is wiped clean from their brains at age 60 or 65. No one believes the old know anything and they prefer us to become invisible.

Obviously, I can't speak for Canada but my sense over the years is that in many important ways, we in the U.S. are not much different from our neighbors to the north.

Here's how Canadian Daniel Nonen, the writer of the Gazette story, talks about the low expectations phenomenon:

”It continues to be acceptable to patronize old people with low expectations...

“Old people need a liberation movement like the great North American movements of the past 60 years that are improving the lot of blacks, women, gays and lesbians...

“However, there is an important difference between racism, sexism, prejudice based on sexual orientation and the discrimination that old people face.

“The prejudices that created the need for those liberation movements were based on tradition rather than fact. There is a factual basis behind ageism. Physical strength and beauty peak in youth, as does mental agility, and then they decline.

“However, valuable social skills and societal understanding continue to grow throughout middle age and into old age. The accommodations needed to incorporate old people who want to continue working are small, such as shorter work days and longer breaks...”

Of course, it's both not as simple as that and bigger than that too. It shouldn't be only about remaining in the workplace. It should be about support, opportunity - and expectation - for elders to contribute in all the ways that are desperately needed and would engage our storehouses of experience.

Nevertheless, Mr. Nonen's suggestion is a good place to start the public conversation:

”...the most important accommodation that society should make doesn’t cost anything,” he concludes. “People should simply start to expect more from old people. They should reject the 'soft bigotry of low expectations.'”

Not just “people” but we old people, too, should expect more of ourselves and each other. It's got to start somewhere.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Janet Thompson: The Crypt


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

Comments

This brought back recollections of teaching in an urban high school. Some expected less of their students because of who they were and as a result, the students themselves bought into these expectations.
Elders could also fall into the trap of thinking themselves suddenly less capable than than they had been just a few years before. As a result, both they and society lose out.

Is it just my imagination or do seniors in a group situation such as senior centers or senior living facilities act more like the stereotypical old people than do seniors who tend to stay away from those groups. Does "elderlyness" feed on itself?

Yes, I take your point. Nobody wants to be condescended to. And it can feel lonely not to be needed.

However, on the other side, I richly enjoy being able to set my entire agenda, with no one else telling me how high to jump. When you are employed, you have to bow and scrape. Those kinds of expectations I can do without.

And while we have had discussions here about the pain some elders (particularly women) may experience over losing their looks, I find that I rather enjoy being "invisible"in my old age. There's a certain freedom in that.

My motivation doesn't depend on the demands of others.

I don't see this happening to people with normal cognitive abilities, and a desire to remain engaged. But there are a lot of 'non-thinkers' out there and they get old too.

High expectations from people with failing cognition seems pretty delusional, which isn't to say they shouldn't be encouraged to do what they can.

I don't buy into this nor do any of the elders I hang out with.

Some of us are lucky enough to be married to someone who inspires us. In my case, Hunky Husband (age 78) runs 4-5 miles at a time and lifts weights, regularly.

In addition, HH is active in disaster response work for a non-profit organization. He has recently been tapped to lead a team of experts (4 volunteers, 3 employees) who can be dispatched quickly in the event of need. His team is currently on alert due to the wildfires in California. They keep him busy!

Unfortunately, even with his setting high expectations, I fall short. I fear how much shorter I might fall without him!

If you demanded much of yourself in your younger years I believe you continue to do so in your older years. I know I do. It is hard to slow down if you've always been motivated to do more.

Due to an Achilles tendon ailment a month ago, a podiatrist told me I had to slow down and it was really nothing to do with age as even he, a young man, had to curtail some of his activities due to an Achilles problem. I rested, I'm better, and I'm off and running again. Well, not running, but walking fast!

If the elders I know are any example I think that our expectations of self remain the same. If we expected to accomplish a lot when young we still do so. Those who were never motivated to expect much remain the same.

I see very little change is habits or personalities of my friends from years ago. I do hope that we all have learned more of life's lessons. I know I have.

Just Monday I was talking with a long-distance friend I grew up with in another state. We have both retired (for the time being anyway) since we last spoke several months ago. One of the reasons for not talking in so long is our very busy schedules. We find ourselves involved in a lot of volunteer activities for which we have been recruited, and spending more time on personal interests for which we did not have time when we were in the workplace. Our own expectations and those of others regarding what we can do seems to have not dwindled one whit. In fact, we are now having to learn how to gently decline any more requests. I have far too many books piled up to give up any more of my long-put-off reading time. So, while the public perception for the abilities of baby boomers overall may be lowered, our own experience has not yet reflected that.

I'm new to the TGB blog but everything I have read so far really resonates with me. I didn't go to university at 18 and now at 69 I'm planning on entering university next year. In the last couple of years my brain seems to have "woken up" and I intend making the most of it. My health and financial situation is good and I'm lucky in that respect. I believe if you don't have high expectations for yourself then what is there?

I don't know if people assume that the knowledge of a lifetime is wiped from our brains at 60 or 65, but there is a lot of condescension out there. My pet peeve is the "Do you have access to a computer?" question which I get a lot.

I also think that women have it harder than men in that regard. At least men over 60 or 65 or 70 are sometimes considered to be "greybeards," with decades of invaluable experience.

As my husband The Engineer says, "Would you rather have a 65 year old heart surgeon or two 30-year olds?


I loved what Lauren said. I think we have to be careful setting expectations in the aging. Those who continue to be able, set their own expectations. Those who are unable really aren't faking those problems! I think life becomes more and more fluid as we age and fluid seeks its own level and should be allowed to without guilt. Our experiences may have commonalities, but we all have different coping methods and different paths open to us.
Low expectations are often a result of stereotyping, but not always. We are in decline!

Madeleine at 10:57 the reason women get talked down to more is historical. I live in an area full of 80+ seniors, the kind where the women were housewives their entire lives. They really do seem to have lived lives that were sorry I call it "a whole lot of nothing", it revolved around stuff like over cleaning and doing laundry and being afraid of all technology. They have no real knowledge of "the big bad world" and live life vicariously through their kids and grandchildren.

This fearfulness should dissipate as boomer women, who worked in the big city and commuted and earned their own living, turn old. I can't see myself morphing into getting an interest in getting a curl and set every week when I retire.

Vera puts her finger on it for me. My friend, 76 to my 66, has never slept alone having married straight from school to her husband of many years. Was expected to become the homemaker and recently mentioned that she doesn't involve herself in any way with the financial side of the marriage; he pays all the bills and gives her housekeeping money. She also doesn't drive or use a computer. My generation have kicked around the world for a number of years before settling down, and seem to have that bolshy questioning attitude to everything we are told to believe that got us into so much trouble when we were in our teens and twenties in the 60s. I'm very hopeful for the boomers when we get really really old - nursing homes full of loud music, the latest technology for keeping in touch with family and friends, vibrant colour schemes and possibly legalised recreational drugs?!

What Vera and Enna said.

There's a difference between "high expectations" for ourselves and hubris.Some posts, in my opinion, reflect hubris about us, the high expectation boomers. What bothers me, however, is the lack of compassion for them, the "low expectation" others. It's really not a contest. between us and them.

I can only speak for myself. At 60, I have no desire to slave for companies like I once did. I have plenty of interests and high expectations for myself--but I am unlikely to be paid for fulfilling them.

I do see a lot of older folks who are not taking care of the health, still eating sugar and meat like they could when they are young, and not controlling their weight. THAT is a low expectation. It is possible to be healthy and vigorous when older, but it requires (for many of us) a significant change in lifestyle.

The "outside world" has always had terrible expectations for me, since I am female. Being both old and female, and no longer dyeing my hair, I run into that. But I am hardened against it by now, and go my own way.

I enjoy this blog very much!

Pat Palmer is correct that we "have run into that"....those expectations of us....for years.
And reading comments I think it is fair to say that we oldies but goodies seem to have expectations and judgements of other oldies-who-are-not-so-goodies.

I push myself as an older person because I pushed myself as a younger person. Not a choice, built right into my genes. As a nurse, I do encourage others to "go the distance" but I also give others "permission" to bow out, slow down or not take up the cause. We are in decline so we WILL change downward over time. And that is ok. And those young people who DO NOT UNDERSTAND and misjudge us will someday understand if they live long enough, loud music and recreational drugs notwithstanding.
One of the nice things about aging for me is letting go of expectations about others, about life, and even about myself!
Old is good.
Ebola, not so good.
I rejoice in this day.

I've been retired now 5 weeks and I'm dedicated to doing nothing through August and then decide my place in this new phase of life. Friends all ask me what I'm doing with my time; can't answer them other than I'm resting and reflecting (and watching my hair get thinner and thinner).
This post provided some food for thought.

Sorry to be so tardy at posting a comment, but I just wanted to say to Bruce, if he's still reading, that I think he hit the nail flat out on the head. This "elderlyness" in Senior Living facilities is precisely why I have never been able to talk myself into moving to one even though the idea of having cooking and housekeeping done makes it tempting.

Thanks to @LynneSpreen for the link to all of this on her Twitter account. I am having the time of my life (at age 71) learning via the Internet, transcribing nightly entries on my blog, A 1961-65 Park College Diary, and meeting new people through blogging, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Those of us lucky enough to grow older need to make the most of it.

I once introduced myself at a retirement seminar by saying I expected to live until I am 115. That resulted in a round of applause and some smiles and positive comments.

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