There has been a surge recently in the number of print media stories about ageism. Two I've seen are important.
In November, Joseph F. Coughlin, who is founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab, noted in Time magazine that old people even have their own town in Florida, The Villages. (Not that similar places don't exist elsewhere.)
At The Villages, there are a 157,000 residents age 55 and older who have developed their own culture, norms and lifestyle, says Coughlin, and he sees a “troubling possible future” where old and young segregate themselves from one another:
”The way this could happen is simple,” he writes. “Society fails to recognize the needs, desires and aspirations of older people, treating them as invisible — or, worse, as a problem to be solved.
“We continue to write a story of old age that retires people away from everyone else, rather than finding ways to engage them, to activate their talents. In response, it’s only natural that older people would choose to cloister themselves away.”
Actually, we – meaning young and old - are way ahead of Coughlin. Many of the majority of elders who do not live in Villages-style communities find other ways to isolate themselves from younger generations. And if they won't do it themselves, those younger people will do it for them.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Tad Friend looked into the intractable endurance of ageism quoting, at one point, four psychologists who wrote the book, Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice against Older Persons.
”[...they] point out that many people preserve themselves from 'death thought accessibility' by shunning 'senior citizen centers, bingo parlors, nursing homes, golf courses, Florida, and Rolling Stones concerts.'
“The authors dryly conclude,” notes Friend, 'Another way to avoid older adults is to keep them out of the workplace.'”
No kidding. A lot of us on this blog who had every intention of working longer know all about that how that works, and Friend takes Silicon Valley to task for the tech industry's patently ageist hiring practices.
As it turns out too, according to Friend, the widespread belief that Eastern cultures treat their elders with more kindness, care and understanding than our Western culture does just isn't so:
”A meta-analysis by the academics Michael S. North and Susan T. Fiske reveals that Eastern societies actually have more negative attitudes toward the elderly that Western ones do...”
And further, say North and Fiske, efforts to make old people more understandable to the young,
”'...have yielded mixed results at best.' Having students simulate the experience of being old by donning weighted suits and vision-inhibiting goggles, or exposing them to 'intergenerational contact' – actual old people – doesn't lead to kumbaya moments."
“'Such approaches do not appear to incite a long-term desire among the young for interactions with elders,' they regretfully conclude, 'and contact can backfire if older adults are particularly impaired.'”
It doesn't help that, as Friend writes, we tend to caricature elders into only two categories: "raddled wretches and cuddly Yodas", denying them full, rounded humanity as the young are automatically granted.
As Friend notes throughout his piece, it is fear of death that drives ageism which is what probably makes ageism unavoidable.
”If ageism is hardwired, how can we reprogram ourselves? Greenberg and Co. suggest three ways:
⚫ Having the elderly live among us and fostering respect for them
⚫ Bolstering self-esteem throughout the culture to diminish the terror of aging
⚫ Calmly accepting our inevitable deaths.
“They note, however, that 'all these directions for improvement are pie in the sky, particularly when we think of them at a society-wide or global level of change.' So ageism is probably inevitable 'in this potentially lonely and horrifying universe.'”
Or, from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker:
”The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
Personally and however fearful it may be, I'm working hard to live every moment I have left to its fullest.