Ageist language isn't confined to such obvious demeaning labels as geezer, coot, biddy, etc. - or to “elderspeak,” the belittling forms of address such a “dearie,” and “sweetie” or speaking to old people in a loud, slow voice.
Much more common is the offhand, everyday assumption among the media that old is always bad. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon use age jokes so frequently that I don't often watch their monologues anymore.
It's ubiquitous among comedians of all types and genders – almost all of them include ageist jokes in their routines.
Over the course of his two terms, Barack Obama has proved that had he not gone into politics, he might have made a pretty good living as a standup comic.
He was in impeccable form Saturday night as the main attraction at his final White House Correspondents Dinner. Great funny zingers at all the traditional media and politics targets with the timing of a professional comic, as we have come to expect from him.
However. When Obama was barely three minutes into his 34-minute routine, these self-mocking age jokes turned up:
”Eight years ago, I was a young man, full of idealism and vigor, and look at me now. (Laughter) I am gray and grizzled, just counting down the days ’til my death panel.(Laughter and applause)
“Hillary once questioned whether I’d be ready for a 3AM phone call — now I’m awake anyway because I’ve got to go to the bathroom. (Laughter and applause.”
The same old tired "humor" ensuring that the universal assumption old people lose all their faculties will continue. When the president, who would never malign an ethnic group, religion or women, turns being old into a hoary old stereotype for a cheap laugh, what chance is there of ever gaining respect for old people.
Not infrequently, the insult takes the form of the word “still” when a writer tells readers, for example, how amazing it is that John Smith, age 75, still walks the dog every day and cooks his own meals.
In fact, you can pretty well assume that the writer of any story about a person older than 70 or so – no matter what the focus of the story is - will reinforce the stereotype of infirmity by being amazed he or she can, for example, “still” get out of a chair unaided.
So it is shocking when a reporter has an obvious opportunity to throw in a couple of “still statements” to infantilize an old person but instead takes a higher road.
Last week, in The New York Times, Sarah Wildman did that. It was a feature story about Justus (pronounced YOO-stice) Rosenberg who, she explains, is probably “the last remaining member of an extralegal team” who helped Jewish cultural figures and anti-fascist intellectuals in Vichy France flee the Nazis in the early 1940s.
It's an exciting and amazing tale that is probably the best news story I read last week. Most impressive, particularly given the subject of my daily chronicles here, is the regard and respect Ms. Wildman pays Rosenberg. Take a listen:
”Officially, Dr. Rosenberg, who turned 95 in January, retired from teaching 20 years ago. Retirement didn't suit him.”
Wildman ignores every opportunity a lesser writer would take to tell us how “spry” or “feisty” Rosenberg is.
“'I think my life,' Dr. Rosenberg mused on a frigid February afternoon in the kitchen of his Rhinebeck, N.Y. home, 'as what the French call concours de circonstances – a confluence of circumstances.'”
Later in the story,
”'Have I mentioned it to you yet?' asked Dr. Rosenberg, picking up the narrative the next day as he drove from Bard's campus to his home in Rhinebeck.'”
”Two years ago he and his wife of 20 years, Karin, started the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation to fund efforts fighting hate and anti-Semitism.”
Sarah Wildman reports his age, tells us he teaches and drives, suggests he knows his way around a kitchen, can recall a conversation from the day before and lets us know in passing that he got married at age 75 – all without remarking that any of it is surprising at his age.
Hallelujah. Sarah Wildman allows Justus Rosenberg to be just a person - as if he were 30 or 40 or 50 years old - and that is exceptional in as ageist a world as ours so we should take note when it happens.
If the media followed Ms. Wildman's lead, we would not need to notice and instead concentrate on what is a fantastic story, well told. It's titled “The Professor has a Daring Past” and you can read it at The New York Times. I recommend it.