256 posts categorized "Ageism"

Contest Winners and Crabby Old Lady

What an amazing response to the Wednesday drawing for a copy of What We Gain as We Grow Older: On Gelassenheit by the well-known German philosopher, Wilhelm Schmid.

We heard from a lot of people who have never commented before and one woman asked if she, living in Scotland, is eligible. Yes. About 20 percent of TimeGoesBy readers reside in countries other than the United States and everyone has an equal shot at winning.

There are five books available and therefore five winners. I'm listing the names you used to sign your comments, not email names. Here goes:

Nana Royer
Wendl Kornfeld
Carol Killian

Each of you should use the “Contact” link at the top of this page to send me your name for snailmailing and your postal address. I will then get the books out to you forthwith. If, perchance, I do not hear from a winner by noon Pacific standard time on Monday 15 February, another winner will be chosen.

Congratulations all. I know you will enjoy the book.

This was fun. I wish we could do it more often but that's up to publishers and to my willingness to read a bunch of books to find ones I believe are worth recommending. Also, thanks to so many of you for your kind words about this blog. I feel abashed when I read them. Now to today's post...

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There's a rumor going 'round – well, it's been around for as long as Crabby Old Lady can remember – that with old age, men get grumpy. You know, the “get off my lawn” stereotype.

Some people blame this phenomenon on lower testosterone that comes with age. Crabby questions that theory since in other circles, testosterone is said to be the cause of much male belligerance. But for the purpose of Crabby's next sentence, let's just go with it. Two recent events lead Crabby to wonder if women suffer a similar affliction for the same reason – low estrogen in their case.

Two venerable old women - both worthy of our respect and admiration for groundbreaking accomplishments that have paved the way for all women - strayed into grumpy old man territory last week.

First, Madeleine Albright, the 78-year-old who served as the first female U.S. Secretary of State, tried to shame young women into voting for the second female former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton:

“Special place in hell for women who don't help each other?” Hunh? She has angered this Crabby Old Lady and embarrassed herself.

The clamor over that had not settled when, according to Katie Dreyer at Huffington Post, 81-year-old, feminist icon, Gloria Steinem, told HBO talk show host, Bill Maher,

”...that younger women were selling out by supporting [presidential candidate] Bernie Sanders, a sad phenomenon that can apparently be explained by young people's desire to impress the opposite sex: 'When you're young, you're thinking: “Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie,"' [said Steinem].

In Crabby Old Lady's view, that contradicts everything Gloria Steinem has stood for over the past half century and is nowhere near, to Crabby's knowledge, how young women today behave on issues as important as who the next president will be.

Crabby understands that these two strong, committed, hardworking women who have done more than most to improve women's rights would like to see a woman president in their lifetime. So would Crabby. But not by belittling young women.

Following near universal condemnation for her outburst, last Sunday Ms. Steinem took to Facebook to publish what has become the standard-issue political apology - “misspoke” - of anyone who lets slip what he or she really thinks. She wrote, in part,

”In a case of talk-show Interruptus, I misspoke on the Bill Maher show recently, and apologize for what's been misinterpreted as implying young women aren't serious in their politics.”

Misspoke? Misinterpreted? How? It was hardly a nuanced argument that might be difficult to make clear, and Crabby doesn't believe it for a moment. Here is Steinem's full Facebook statement:


Crabby Old Lady feels betrayed by these towering feminist pioneers. Ms. Albright and Ms. Steinem have diminished themselves which may diminish their legitimate and important accomplishments for those young women they have maligned who were not, like you and me, there when the earliest hard work for women's rights was being done.

Worse, this is not only a setback for women but for old people, adding crabby old woman to the long-time grumpy old man stereotype. Elders don't need this.

Crabby is giving Katie Dreyer, the young woman from Huffpost quoted above, the last word today. She says it well:

”If I ran for President of the United States, I would want people to vote for me based on my views, my experience, my approach to debates and negotiation, and not because I happen to have been born a certain sex.

“I am a woman, but I am also a human being. This is what Steinem and Albright have taught me in their admirable fight for gender-equality.

“Whether I support Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton is ultimately unimportant; what is important is my right and ability to choose in the first place. Of all people, Steinem and Albright should have understood this.”

[EDITORIAL NOTE: It has been a long time since Crabby Old Lady has made an appearance in these pages. For those who are unfamiliar with her, she is the third-party alter ego I use to give me some distance when I'm really angry and sometimes (not this one) when I'm trying to be funny about something irritating but not necessarily significant.]

The Generations of NCIS

In last Saturday's Interesting Stuff post, I mentioned that Michael Weatherly, the actor who has played (very special) agent Anthony DiNozzo since NCIS began in 2003, is leaving the CBS drama when this 13th season ends in the spring.

Weatherly, in his role, brings an important spark to the program and more than some of the other characters, he has grown and changed in smart, interesting ways over those years (as any person ought to) and for these reasons, I wonder if there even is a show without him.

Be that as it may – we'll see - there is something bigger and more important about this program than just one character: how the several generations are represented and work together may be the most respectful of older people on series television without sacrificing an iota of storytelling nor making a big deal about it.

That – not making a big deal of old age (or any of the other ages represented) – is significant because when respect is the norm, it does not need to be noticed or commented upon.

Except that in life, it is not the norm so I am commenting today.

Certainly like me, many fans of the show miss Ziva David, the trained Mossad assassin played by the gorgeous Cote de Pablo. Sometimes it is hard to accept an actor so beautiful in such a deadly serious role but de Pablo convinced me and the chemistry between her and DiNozzo was a rare match on TV and in the movies, a joy to watch.

Her replacement when she left the show two-and-a-half seasons ago, Ellie Bishop played by Emily Wickersham, has not gelled with the rest of the cast nor been defined in any substantial way.

But both, at somewhere around age 30, are portrayed as smart, junior members of the team who are allowed over time to improve their skills as they gradually become more accomplished – pretty much as happens to all people at that stage of their working lives.

Sean Murray as Timothy McGee, the technology nerd of the group who is often the butt of DiNozzo's pranks, has had to struggle to earn DiNozzo's respect and in time found his footing as the years have passed. Again, not much unlike real life.

Mark Harmon as the supervisory agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs hasn't changed at all over the years. As an actor, he is often accused of being wooden and I can't disagree. But Gibbs is played as age appropriate (55? 60? 65?), and there are occasional intimations in recent years of his age, as happens to everyone, catching up with him a bit. Small, but realistic.

The only character who hasn't changed in the slightest is the forensic expert Abbie Sciuto played by Pauley Perette. She's the same 13-year-old she was in 2003; mostly I ignore her except for whatever plot points I need to catch.

Abbie is some kind of anomaly with the writers and producers who have done such an expert job growing the other roles in realistic ways.

And that brings us to the medical examiner, Dr. Donald Mallard, known as Ducky, played by David McCallum.

You might recall McCallum from half a century ago when he played Ilya Kuryakin on the TV spy drama, The Man From UNCLE.

(And if you are a weekly fan of NCIS, you might have caught the insider joke in an episode several years ago when one of the team asks Gibbs what Ducky looked like when he was young. Gibbs answers, “Like Ilya Kuryakin.”)

McCallum is 82 years old now and Ducky is played as the old man he looks like, even allowed to have some common idiosyncracies of elders, such as his propensity to tell long, involved stories from his past in lead up to whatever medical information he is reporting to Gibbs or DiNozzo or the others.

The writers can do this legitimately because Ducky is respected by all for his knowledge, skill, experience and wisdom. Even better, they have shown him over time learning a complex new skill – profiling – in his old age.

I don't mean to overlook Brian Dietzen as the assistant medical examiner Jimmy Palmer. When he first arrived at the show, he was so silly and juvenile that it was hard to believe he could have got through medical school.

But the writers and Dietzen have done a terrific job of showing his growth from childish 20-something to pushing 40 as a husband and father now, while retaining a more adult version of his inner dweeb.

In an excellent recent touch, Jimmy has taken on a bit of his mentor's penchant for long, meandering stories for which, of course, Ducky has no more patience than Gibbs does with Ducky's stories.

As it should be. As it would be in life.

Speaking of long-winded, my point is that there may be other TV shows that handle age, especially old age and its relationship with the younger characters with as much – well, character as NCIS. If so, I don't know about them.

But in the creation of NCIS, one or more developers made a choice to portray each character's age, especially the two elders, with respect and decency instead of the stereotypes and stupid jokes that almost always prevail. And they have held onto that choice throughout the years. This is not an accident.

So although I have my doubts, I hope the show can survive the departure of Tony DiNozzo. Even at 13 years and counting, NCIS stands as a beacon not only for how old people should be portrayed in movies, books and on TV, but real life too.

Can Ageist Beliefs Increase Your Risk for Alzheimer's?

That is the conclusion of associate professor Becca Levy and her fellow researchers at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut:

"What we found is that negative perceptions on aging are definitely significantly related to [Alzheimer's] disease indicators," said Levy of her most recent research project, reported at Health Day.

Levy has been studying the effects of ageist beliefs and behavior on the health and wellbeing of elders for at least as long as the 12 years I've been writing this blog. I reported here on a related study of Levy's in 2013.

“There is a name for this kind of demeaning speech,” I wrote then. “It's called 'elderspeak' and being the target of it can shorten an old person's life by up to 7.5 years according to the estimable Yale University associate professor of psychology, Becca Levy, because it reinforces a person's negative perception of their age:

“In a long-term study of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town, published in 2002,” reported The New York Times, “Dr. Levy and her fellow researchers found that those who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer, a bigger increase than that associated with exercising and not smoking.

”The findings held up even when the researchers controlled for differences in the participants’ health conditions.” [emphasis added]

Elderspeak, of course, refers to baby talk and such language as “dearie,” “young lady,” “honey,” “sweetie,” and other cutesy names that are so loathsome when directed at old people.

Levy's latest research further reinforces and expands the damaging outcomes resulting from negative beliefs about growing old. Health Day explained how this new study was conducted:

”The research team first focused on more than 50 men and women who were dementia-free when they enrolled in the large, multi-decade Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. That project, launched by the U.S. National Institute on Aging in 1958, is the longest running American study on aging.

“Years later, all participants underwent annual brain-imaging scans (MRIs) for up to 10 years, with an average of seven scans per person. The goal was to pinpoint any changes in the size of the hippocampus region of the brain, an area known to play a critical role in memory regulation.

“Scan results were then paired against the views each participant had offered about a quarter-century earlier to 16 age stereotypes, such as 'old people are absent-minded.'”

Health.com provided more details. After the study participants died, they report,

”The autopsy examiners looked for two well-known markers for Alzheimer’s disease: protein clusters known as amyloid plaques, and twisted protein strands known as tangles.

“Plaque and tangle presence was then correlated with the attitudes on aging the deceased participants had expressed nearly three decades before.

“Again, those who held more-negative views on aging early on were found to have a significantly greater presence of plaques and tangles.”

The results appear close to definitive. The Telegraph explained the study's conclusions:

”Put simply, people who have been conditioned by society to think they will become physically and mentally decrepit in older age, probably will...

“In contrast, upbeat, optimistic and active individuals who refuse to conform to ageist stereotypes, are likely to stay mentally alert for longer.

“The researchers say it could explain why westernised countries like the UK have such a high rate of dementia compared with India, where the elderly are venerated.

"'We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalise from society that can result in pathological brain changes," said lead author Dr Becca Levy.”

What is encouraging is that the negative beliefs about ageing can be changed and if positive beliefs can be adopted and reinforced. The “adverse impact is not inevitable,” Levy told Science Daily.

Whenever I write about the damaging outcomes of negative attitudes, beliefs and behavior toward elders and old age in general, there is a predictable number of comments from people who say that it's not important what other people say or think. The “sticks and stones” excuse I call it.

But it's simply not true as this latest study shows. What the general public and the culture at large believe affects our own feelings about ourselves and, more importantly, public policy - that is, how governments make decisions about elders (or any group being denigrated), how tax money is spent, who is allowed to work, even what kind of health care people is and is not administered.

Ageism is what fuels the billion-dollar cosmetic surgery and bogus anti-aging industries too. Nobody spends money on those procedures ad products who doesn't believe that growing old is the worst thing that can happen to them. Are they also raising their risk of Alzheimer's?

Old Obama in Malaysia

Even many old people deny it exists but ageism is a serious problem. In just one manifestation of its impact, age discrimination in the workplace begins as early as age 40 and picks up speed from there.

Often, when workers many years younger than retirement age are laid off, they never work again in their field. They end up in low paying jobs unrelated to their area of expertise and some never find another job at all. Here are the common results of those events:

They lose their homes because they can no longer afford the mortgage.

The kids are on their own to pay for college.

They can no longer afford health coverage.

Stress ends marriages.

Retirement savings are emptied for living expenses.

In what should have been their highest-earning years paying off the mortgage, building up Social Security and other retirement funds, they are instead forced to make much lower contributions (if they can do that at all), dramatically cutting their income for the rest of their lives.

As a result, many who were previously solid members of the middle class are consigned to an old age of poverty that would not have happened if the culture had allowed them to work a normal span of time.

Ageism is the last acceptable prejudice. Even with the common tragedies as detailed above, derogatory references and jokes about old age are easy laugh-getters and exist in all media – movies, television, internet, books, magazines, newspapers along with everyday conversation.

It is so ubiquitous that many people don't even notice the nasty jokes or the knee-jerk denials of age so casually tossed off and when it is pointed out to them, they think it's okay because it's always been that way.

Don't be so sensitive, people say – even old people – when anyone (like me) points out the problem. Just ignore them, they tell me never seeing beyond themselves the harm that is done to all old people by the constant use of derogatory language.

Last Friday during his trip to Asia, President Barack Obama held a town hall meeting with the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative in Malaysia. During the question-and-answer period, a student began thusly: “Since you are ageing toward a very senior life...”

You don't need to be told this caused a lot of laughter in the room. Obama got off a one-liner or two with the kid about his gray hair and mugged for the audience about being insulted. Finally, the young man finished his question:

”What do you want to see from young people like us in the future when you are old?”

Watch now how our president who, at age 54, is eligible for 50-plus discounts and retirement communities, handles that:

There he is, the leader of the free world at his charming best. Obama doesn't get accused of being smooth for nothin' and he's hard to resist.

But he uses his gift, in this case, to perpetuate one of our worst stereotypes (worst because so many refuse to believe it exists at all): that there's nothing good about being old and that it's an insult to be truthful about it. Then he uses the young man's honesty to take some friendly-sounding umbrage.

Friendly-sounding, but making it clear that he doesn't want to be tagged as old.

What chance do old people have to gain any respect if even the president disparages their appearance.

As the video ends abruptly, I don't know if Obama goes on to address the student's serious and important question but I suspect he does – it's in his nature. Whatever he says, however, the only part that was broadcast around the world on television and made any impact was his disdain and disrespect for old age.

The town hall was 90 minutes long and if you are up for it (I was not) you can see the whole thing here.

Two Irrational Beliefs About Old People

Every day alarms are raised about the the burdens old people place on society. The growing “silver tsunami” will make life awful for everyone else we are told.

From government to employment to media and more, the conventional wisdom is that "the elderly" are all in poor health, dependent on others and if that's not so yet for any given individual, it soon will be.

Sick old people will swamp the economy, they say. We can't afford Social Security so we must privatize it. There won't be enough caregivers to go around. The sick old people will suck up all the money with nothing left for anyone else. So they shouldn't retire.

There are many important things to know about those generalities. Today - a couple of them.

It is true that more old people have health problems than younger people but that does not translate into disability or helplessness nearly as much or as often as many, even most, believe.

One respected study of tens of thousands of participants age 51 and older published in 2013 found that “For a surprisingly large segment of the older population, chronological age is not a relevant marker for understanding, measuring, or experiencing healthy aging.” More specifically,

”The researchers found that among individuals ages 85 and older, 28 percent had excellent or very good self-reported health and 56 percent reported no health-based limitations in work or housework.”

Further, even among the oldest age group, “nearly one-third have not been diagnosed with any of these five major chronic diseases:”

“The proportion of the population with no clinical diagnosis of any of the five major chronic diseases ranges from 75% of the 51–54-year-old population to 32% of the 85+ group.”

Those statistics do not mean that two-thirds of the 85+ group are incapacitated. Most are living on their own managing their diseases. Many other do well with, for example, a cleaning person once a week or Meals on Wheels deliveries or visits from a home health aide or a neighbor, friend or relative who helps.

If you pay too much attention to what is written and said about old people, it's easy to believe that all of them are incapable of caring for themselves. But you would be wrong.

It is true that people are living much longer than our parents' and grandparents' generations, that we are healthier than the general population believes we are, and that many elders want or need to work longer than traditional retirement age of 65 or 66.

But not many are allowed to. It's called ageism and it's illegal. But employers have all kinds of excuses the law allows them to get away with to fire or not hire people 50 and older.

Alongside the belief that all old people are disabled, is the growing one that elders should be required to work longer than age 65. Yes, I know that's a contradiction, but there it is in the media every day if you pay attention.

I've been reading these opposing points of views for at least a decade and here's what I think about that: No one gets to demand that people work past Social Security retirement age unless they remove the barriers that exist to keep old workers unemployed. Job seekers who are 50 and older must be allowed to find work as easily as they did when they were 25, 35, and 45.

And not just as Walmart greeters. People who insist old people work must allow them to have the kinds of jobs they are good at, that they are experienced in, that inspire them and allow them to be productive. Just as they have all their lives. Just as young people are allowed to expect.

Of course, this applies also to the any elder who wants or needs to work past traditional retirement age (although we also cannot penalize elders who are not capable of working any longer either but that's for another day).

I understand that the United States – and the world – is experiencing a confusing period when traditional jobs are disappearing, the “gig economy” is obviously not working and no one has an answer.

But as people and governments muddle through, people cannot be treated differently in the workplace based solely on age.

And you cannot, in the same breath, insist old people are all disabled, a drag on the economy and then require them to work past retirement age. That is irrational and gets us nowhere.

A Contradiction of Old Age

It makes me happy when I come across other people writing about the serious effects of ageist language. The latest I've seen is from a trio of academics who work in the field of ageing:

”Recent articles in a variety of publications provide an illustration about the language of ageism and aging,” they wrote recently in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“They use language that describes aging as 'a catastrophic condition,' an 'ailment' or 'a social problem.' Aging is neither a catastrophe nor a malady. Yet the words we use to describe aging certainly seem to tell a different story.

“The language of ageism is entrenched in our daily vocabulary and is so commonplace that it is practically invisible.”

The three go on to list some of the conditions that are mistakenly conflated with ageing:

”...all adults are living longer. Adults with chronic health conditions, including HIV, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, are living longer. But let’s please not confuse the side effects of these diseases and long-term use of medications as anything akin to the normal aging process.

“Normal aging does not create frailty in our aging population; frailty is an actual medical condition.”

For many years, I've been saying these same things along with others the three writers cite but it's terrific to see it gaining a wider audience beyond my blog online and in print.

That said, however (that ageing is not a disease in and of itself and should not be spoken of in that manner), there is no denying that if we live long enough, even disease-free, there will be decline we must each accommodate.

So just to confuse you, I'm going to discuss an article by a woman who has since 2001, lived with a debilitating illness, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). I know there is a great deal of controversy about it, that some people deny CFS is real, and for that reason, Toni Bernhard usually doesn't name it:

”One reason is the absurd name,” she wrote in 2011. “As others have pointed out, calling it, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is like calling Emphysema, Chronic Cough Syndrome, or Alzheimer’s, Chronic Forgetfulness Syndrome.”

I don't have an opinion about CFS but according to various publications, due to the debility it has caused her, Ms. Bernhard was forced to give up her 22-year-career as a law professor and has never been able to return.

She has, however, managed to write some books the first, in 2010, being, How to be Sick – A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I haven't read it nor her two subsequent books and probably will not.

But on the same day I came across the ageist language news story, I also found an article she wrote in the tenth year of her illness.

It is titled 10 Tips From 10 Years Sick and although it is about being chronically ill at any age, it struck me that the insights she has gained are just as useful for any healthy elder dealing with the normal changes that can accompany the final third of life. Here is a sampling:

1. Take time to grieve your old life and then create a new one. “I was in such denial that I forced myself to return to work while sick. When my body finally broke down and I had to trade the classroom for the bedroom, I was angry for months.

“Then I was paralyzed with sadness over the loss of my identity...if someone had told me I’d write a book from the bed, I would have said, Not possible. But I did."

Old people can do this too. When an activity becomes too difficult or impossible to do, we can redirect our attention to try something else. Can't run anymore? How about a bicycle or a walk. Can't drive at night anymore? Find more to do in the daytime, as I did. And so on.

5. Find beauty in small things. “I’ve learned to do with seeing beauty in the small happenings in my bedroom: a spider, dropping from the ceiling on a silken thread, only to stop a foot above the bed; a fly, dashing around the bedroom like some crazy freeway driver.

“When I wrote about this in Issa: My Life Through the Pen of a Haiku Master a reader commented, saying she’s had to trade a life of activity for one of stillness, but when she uses that stillness to observe her small world closely, 'it almost seems like an even trade.'”

Appreciation of small things doesn't arrive only in the stillness and confinement Bernhard speaks of. It happens as easily to those of us lucky enough to be healthy and mobile – just old. I've heard it so often from so many that I wonder if it is an attribute that comes with growing old.

9. We’re fortunate to live in the Internet Age. “I can’t imagine how much more difficult this illness would be if I couldn’t connect with others on the web who are similarly sick. Through blogs and Facebook and my website, I’ve met people from all over the world.

“When I think of how isolated people were who were sick just a few decades ago, I feel fortunate to be sick in the Internet Age.”

Any of you who have been hanging around this blog for awhile know that I could have written that last item word for word.

In my case, it's about how fortunate the internet is for old people who may be perfectly healthy but lose the camaraderie of the workplace when we retire, who may move away from old friends and neighbors (or vice versa) and whose social circles continue to shrink when friends and relatives die.

There are now many people important to me I would never have known except through this blog and other places online, and about half the people I treasure most I've met via the internet.

It might seem to be a contradiction for me to insist that old age is not a disease and then recommend ways to deal with the limitations that can come with it. It's not and slowing down can be seen as a good thing, if you want, after several decades of a whole lot of go, go, go.

(Tony Bernhard's full list of 10 is here. Her website is here.)

The Language of Memory and Forgetting

With what I believe is the excessive amount of media attention given to Alzheimer's and other dementias, elders can be forgiven for being overly concerned about where they misplaced the house keys.

We console ourselves with such slogans as, “If you can't remember where your glasses are, that's normal; if you don't remember what they're for, you're in trouble.” Or by invoking the well-used “senior moment,” a phrase that hasn't been funny since the first time you heard it 20 years ago.

We oldies work hard at whistling past the graveyard in our fear of Alzheimer's but none of it removes one of the stigmas attached by people of all ages, by the culture at large, to elders: that our memories are unreliable and continue to decay until we either die or succumb to one of the dementias.

But it is just not true or, rather, not very much more true than for younger adults (just for fun, let's call them pre-elders).

How do I know that? One of the advantages of creating more time for quiet and solitude (see last week's post on that topic), is that actual thinking can go on at leisure and sometimes that produces a wholly new idea or conclusion. Such as this:

Have you ever noticed how many ways we have in the English language to blow off our poor memories? Without any effort, I came up with this obviously incomplete list of common, everyday phrases we've been using since childhood to account for our forgetfulness:

It slipped my mind
I must have overlooked that
If I remember correctly
Who knows? Not me
My mind went blank
Oh, I completely forgot
It's on the tip of my tongue
I must have mis-remembered that
If I'm not mistaken
That doesn't ring a bell
As far as I can recall
Remind me again about that...

When I look through those phrases that I have both said and heard from others a zillion times throughout all my life, I wonder how often forgetfulness is tested among people of all ages.

I haven't looked into it, but I'd lay down a few dollars on a bet that it's only old folks researchers bother to examine for memory lapses and they have no idea how frequently pre-elders forget things.

Pretty much all old people I know and many TGB readers who have commented here on memory issues in the past believe they are more forgetful than when they were younger. Is it possible, do you think, that we believe so only because we have spent a lifetime "knowing" old people are forgetful?

It goes without saying that dementia is a terrible disease but not for the majority of us and maybe elders' forgetfulness is, like that of younger people, mostly due to absentmindedness and too much multi-tasking.

Why else would there be so many ways to talk about forgetting?

Breeding Fear of Growing Old

As far as I can see there is a concerted effort, perhaps even a cabal when I am feeling fanciful, to scare the bejesus out of old people and keep it that way unto our graves.

There is no escaping it – it's everywhere you look: television, movies, books, magazines, internet, billboards and definitely the popular medical literature.

On the one hand, they remind us how wonderful it is that we are living decades longer than at any previous time in history. But that is exactly as far as the good news goes. After that, it is all about inducing terror, anxiety, distress, fear and dread.

You may think they are benign, those advertisements for things that some old people need – walk-in bathtubs, chair lifts for stairs, electric scooters and medical alert devices.

There would be nothing wrong with those adverts except that if you don't count dubious life insurance, they are all that is advertised in the AARP magazine and its ilk which is otherwise filled with stories about toe fungus, incontinence and smelly feet.

With such icky disorders as those, how are elders to go about all that online dating the same media tells us is all the fashion these days.

And it doesn't stop there. Everywhere you turn there are medications for yucky problems connected to every known body part: constipation, hair loss, low testosterone, insomnia, erectile dysfunction along with dry mouth and dry vaginas.

But these are the least of it. In recent years, Alzheimer's and the other dementias are the most popular scare stories. Something like 50 percent of elders, they daily surmise, will wind up in the back room of a care home staring vacantly into space as each body function slowly disintegrates.

Other reports warn that even that minor dignity, someone to change our diapers, may soon not be available for everyone who needs it. (I'm not so sure. Not so sure there will be that many of us in the dementia wards and not so sure there won't be enough caregivers. But we'll tackle that another day.)

Following dementia in the big-deal, diseases-of-age category are, of course, the old favorites that refuse to be cured or even treated with much success: cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson's, etc.

Old people have seen enough of these in family, friends and others to worry about them all by ourselves without the all-too-frequent reminders in the media.

And it doesn't stop with recitations of the diseases and decline. According to stand-up comics and the daily stream of ad hominem jokes in all media, old people are guilty of a range of sins from being ugly to walking or driving too slowly, eating dinner at 4PM, being tech ignorant and, of course, for having all those icky conditions mentioned above.

But humor is an age-old method of facing our fears and Crabby Old Lady* has trouble blaming those comedians and the audiences who laugh at their jokes when they hardly ever see anything except the most distressing portrayals of growing old.

The fact is that the majority of old people make it to their deaths living independently with (and without) afflictions they adapt to and manage while enjoying as great a variety of interests as young people have. Different, maybe. Less athletic in many cases. But just an individual.

The reason hardly anyone knows this is that the cultural fear mongers drown out the real story of growing old, breeding fear and making it harder for everyone, young and old alike, to know what a valuable and worthwhile time of life elderhood is.

* UPDATE: Ha! I originally wrote this in my Crabby Old Lady guise, then changed my mind but obviously missed removing this one Crabby reference. Oh well.

EVEN John Oliver Does It

UPDATE 2:30PM PDT: Sarah Wrightson says in the comments below, "someone edits Oliver's FB page: my comment is gone, as are many other people's on a range of topics."

If this is so - and I have no reason to doubt Sarah - I am even more disappointed in (and add disgusted with) John Oliver than I am at the original reason for this post. Please try Twitter instead of Facebook and especially the email to HBO.

And please come back here and let us know in the comments that you have done so. I wouldn't have followed up if there was no response to my post and your commentary but now I'm pissed off big time so it will help to know that you have complained.

* * *

Last Sunday on his HBO program, Last Week Tonight, John Oliver opened his feature essay with this:

”Progress,” he said. “It's the reason your grandparents' views are better not spoken in public. 'Why did I bring you to Straight Out of Compton, Papa?' This is partly on me.”

Apparently, neither Oliver nor any of his writers, researchers and producers, nor the 10 or 12 well-known websites I've read praising and promoting this video see the irony in exposing discrimination against the LGBT community while bashing old people.

Imagine if Oliver had opened the show with any one of these:

“Progress. It's the reason black people's views are better not spoken in public.”


“Progress. It's the reason women's views are better not spoken in public.”


“Progress. It's the reason Muslims' views are better not spoken in public.”

Shall I go on? You can imagine for yourself the backlash if Oliver had used any of those references instead of elders.

When a man who builds his television career on pointing out the large variety of inequities in American culture and brilliantly defending the rights of every oppressed group you can think of (and some you haven't) engages in this kind kneejerk ageism for a cheap laugh, it is indisputable that old people are the last acceptable prejudice.

On Monday I wrote about ageist language in No Cute Old People and normally I would not repeat a topic so soon. But I saw this video, as I usually do with Oliver, first thing in the morning and nearly spit out my coffee.

It's not like Oliver's words are new to me. Ageist attitudes and speech have so thoroughly permeated our culture for so long that people who would blanch at being accused of racism or sexism see nothing wrong with stereotyping old people.

And Oliver, like his mentor, Jon Stewart, is not new to this. They both, when a reference to old age is called for in their performance, always go straight to derogatory, demeaning and dismissive.

Don't think this stuff doesn't matter. Every time such as statement as Oliver's is made, (thousands of times a day), it helps make it okay to fire a perfectly competent old person, allows certain kinds of politicians to believe they can eliminate Social Security and Medicare and as Yale professor Becca Levy discovered in her research, can negatively affect longevity by up to seven-and-a-half years. And that is just for starters.

One reason elder bashing continues and continues to be acceptable is that old people don't complain enough. Mostly we mutter among ourselves, whether it is as public as Oliver's offhand disrespect on television or one-on-one in our daily lives (“and how are you today, young lady”).

Let's change that this time and I'll make it easy for you. Link to this post or repost it on your blog or Facebook page. I don't care. And take it a step further.

Below are a variety of web addresses for Oliver's program, Last Week Tonight, for John Oliver himself, for one of the show's executive producers and for HBO.

Pick one or two or more and send a note letting them know that it's hard to take Oliver seriously about LGBT discrimination while in the same breath he dismisses elders with an offensive stereotype.

Be polite – trolling gets everyone less than nothing. But be clear, be firm and if you think it's helpful, include the URL to this post: http://www.timegoesby.net/weblog/2015/08/even-john-oliver-does-it.html

Here are the addresses:

Facebook page
Twitter: @LastWeekTonight

Twitter: @timcarvell

Facebook page
Twitter: @iamjohnoliver

Facebook page
HBO online message form

What makes this lapse worse coming from John Oliver than it might from some people is that he is otherwise a force for good in the world, an agent of change that Time magazine earlier this year named among the 100 most influential people.

What a good thing it would be for him to influence others by taking a patented Oliver look at the widespread gratuitous ageism in the culture.

Except for that dismissive lead paragraph, Oliver's Sunday essay on LGBT discrimination is as funny, spot on and important as all his weekly videos are. Here it is the full segment:

Don't forget to follow up on letting HBO, John Oliver and his executive producer know what you think about elder bashing while defending LGBT people from discrimination.

“No Cute Old People”

That headline is the theme of a speech given a couple of years ago by Kirsten Jacobs, the education manager for LeadingAge, a highly respected association of more than 6,000 not-for-profit, member organizations in the United States that provide care and services for elders.

These are such places as hospice, assisted living, legal services, senior centers, meals programs, nursing homes, transportation, even Villages and more.

A critical purpose of all these agencies and organizations is to improve and expand services for elders so more of us can remain in our homes as we get older because there are not nearly enough residential care settings of all kinds now – nor will there be any time soon - to house our growing numbers.

What Kirsten was referring to with “no cute old people” is, of course, ageist language, something regular readers of this blog recognize as one of my signature rants.

As I have written here many times, we are bombarded from the cradle with negative stereotypes about old people and hardly anyone notices, let alone objects - even many old people.

But besides being rude and irritating, negative images and ageist language have serious consequences. Yale professor, Becca Levy, has found that one's personal perception of old age affects longevity more than even such factors as gender, loneliness, health and socio-economic status.

Having a positive perception of aging, Levy's studies show, can extend life expectancy by more than seven-and-a-half years. (Read more about that here.)

However, that is background and I digress. I'm really here today to tell you about spending a couple of hours with Kirsten Jacobs last week discussing all these issues and more.

It was such a pleasure being with a like-minded person as ardent as I am about language, especially one who spends her working life thinking about these issues as she develops educational materials and resources for the members of LeadingAge.

Maybe you could say elders are a family business. Kirsten lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, Jake Kirsch, who works with Network for Oregon Affordable Housing (NOAH). They are also the new-ish parents of an 11-month-old.

It always thrills me to meet young people who make elders their life work. We old folks need them in our lives.

Kirsten cares deeply about old people, she dislikes euphemism and ageist language as much as I do and she wants to change how our culture thinks about aging.

Here is that “No Cute Old People” speech she gave at the annual meeting of LeadingAge members in 2013. I'm pretty sure you're going to like her as much as do.

Hollywood's Many Biases Including Elders

Last week, the Harnisch Foundation and USC Annenberg released the latest annual study titled Inequality in 700 Popular Films. One of the report’s researchers, Stacy L. Smith, describes the lack of diversity in movies as an “epidemic.”

”Across 700 films and over 30,000 speaking characters from 2007 to present,” the report concludes, “movies continue to distort the demographic reality of their audience. Film characters are overwhelming White and male despite both population statistics and viewing patterns.”

Handily, to save me some work, The New York Times story about the study contains a succinct list of findings:

”The movies are white: 73.1 percent of all the speaking or named characters in the top 100 movies were white.

“The movies are straight: Only 19 total characters were lesbian, gay or bisexual — none were transgender.

“The movies are young: Only 19.9 percent of female characters were 40 to 64 years old.

“The movies are male: Only 1.9 percent of the movies were directed by women.”

You might have noticed the lack of reference to characters 65 and older – that is the study, not The New York Times.

Although the report carefully documents the lack of roles for women, varieties of ethnic groups and, new this year, LGBT, there is little attention to elder characters. But we can winkle out a bit of information about our age group.

In 2014, not a single title in the top-grossing 100 fictional films starred a woman over 45,” states the report. One reason is that Meryl Streep, the hardest-working woman in cinema, had only supporting roles, including in the Disney musical Into the Woods...

“In the 100 top grossing films of 2014, there were more children's characters, male and female, than those age 65 and older.”

Here is the report's chart showing the breakdown of the ages of characters by gender:

film character age

And that pretty well covers what the 29-page report has to say about elder characters in the movies and it's hard to see how a research project about film roles can claim to be concerned with diversity when people aged 65 and older are dismissed with one or two sentences.

If it is important for women, race, ethnicity and LGBT to be well represented in movies, certainly old people are entitled to the same.

Even so, the report does give us an opportunity to speculate a bit about what movies appear to have become in the first quarter of the 21st century.

The astonishingly high number of films that are nothing more than a succession of explosions, destruction, and general nihilism strung together with grunts from the primarily male characters could rot the brain. And it seems to me that the dominance of white, young and midlife males as both actors and directors might account for it.

What movie drama can do, and used to do much more of whether via comedy, tragedy, farce, melodrama, is take us out of our everyday lives, enchant us, inspire us, help us understand other people's experience, teach us to recognize truth from falsehood, good from evil and generally illuminate the human condition.

That's what storytelling in any medium, at its best, does. Repeated fireballs and car crashes cannot and I think more women and elders in front of and behind the camera could.

You can read the entire Inequality in 700 Popular Films here.

Who is Older than I Am? It Depends...

...for me, anyway.

When I was in high school, my girl friends and I could pinpoint other students' ages within six months. I don't recall how we did that or why it was important but it was a common speculation and we were rarely wrong.

Nowadays, I can't tell an old person's age within a decade, even more sometimes which, I guess, just proves the adage that if you've seen one old person, you've seen one old person; we age a remarkably different rates of change.

Not long ago, as I was reading about the death of random shooting victim, I caught myself thinking of him, at age 53, as older than I am. “Hold on, hold on, hold on,” I told myself. “What's that about? I'm 74.”

Further, after more than 20 years of reading, studying and writing about pretty much every kind of thing related to old age, I have come to think of our fifties as the high end of middle age. No spring chicken but still firmly in the adult world that controls most of American culture.

I am fully aware that I have definitely passed out of that era of my life so how did I, for a millisecond or two, think of the dead guy in the news as older than I am?

And it's not the first time it's happened – in fact, it's fairly frequent. For example, because Helen Mirren is an actor I enjoy and respect, I usually stop to read when I see a report about her.

Her age is always given and as has been so for all the decades I've followed her career - it hasn't changed - she is four years younger than I am. That's not new information but I still catch myself, for a second or two when I read about her, thinking she is older.

These two examples are not isolated instances. I read a lot, online and off, and without noticing until I caught myself at it recently, I have always – apparently since high school - compared other people's ages to my own, sometimes making that mistake about which of us is older.

Not that it matters. Even I admit this post is so lightweight it's in danger of floating off the screen. Nevertheless, it is a minor revelation about a fundamental assumption I hold about age that requires at least one serious question.

After all these years making old age a primary interest of my life, it's nice to expect that I have overcome any latent ageism hanging around. That's probably no more true than it is that anyone, in our culture, is completely free of racism. Still, I would like to think I've advanced a bit.

Or, could it be that we are (I am?) so culturally averse to growing old we unconsciously refuse to acknowledge our own age compared to younger others?

Or, maybe I am reacting as I did when most people were without question older than I was, still now using my adolescent reptile brain.

Or, none of the above. Maybe you should think of this bunch of silliness as an antidote to Wednesday's dead serious discussion of assisted suicide.

If You've Seen One Old Person...

That's the first half of a maxim that is crucial to understanding what old age is like and if you've been hanging out at this blog for awhile, you've read it before:

If you seen one old person, you've seen one old person

Obviously it is a play on a common insult: If you've seen one [insert anything you want to disparage], you've seen them all.

It is doubtful that is true for anything but it is particularly not true for old people. Even so, every person past the age of 60 or so is too often lumped together as though we are all the same.

The baby boomers make a good example.

The oldest of that generation will be 70 next year, the majority retired – voluntarily or otherwise. But the youngest are just 51. They've still got kids in college and are hoping there is time to save a lot more money before they retire.

They don't have much in common but any time you see their name in print or hear it in any other media, they are assumed to be the same kind of people.

And the worst of those boomer references include everyone from age 60 to dead in the category. For too many media types, “boomer” has become a synonym for anyone older than about 50.

Yet, the variations among us are at least as wide and deep as with the youngest ages of humanity. No one expects a two-year-old to be anything like a five-year-old to be anything like a 10-year-old to be anything like a teen.

More, elders age at dramatically different rates. Absent health problems, pretty much all kids walk, talk, run, jump, etc. at the same age – as close as within a week or two of one another.

Some old people, however, are frail and infirm in their fifties while many 90-somethings are as physically active as people decades younger, driving cars, and living independently. The constraints of old age, dependent as they are on genes, health and dumb luck, diverge without much relationship to actual years.

Certainly, however, some generalizations can be made. The older we get, the more our bodies wear out, systems slow down, strength wanes and we become increasingly susceptible to the so-called “diseases of age” - diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, etc. Who gets these and survives them for a time or not, is largely a crapshoot, hard to predict.

Barring a big deal disease – or until one happens – life overall and our capabilities slow down little by little and that happens no matter how much the midlife people tell us that if we do this and not that they won't.

Those people are wrong - there are no miracle cures for old age.

For the decade I've been writing this blog, starting when I was a “youthful” 63, the people I've paid most attention to about “what it's really like to get old” are my friends, Millie Garfield and Darlene Costner.

Each of them has 16 years on me (we celebrated Darlene's 90th birthday a few weeks ago and it won't be long until we do the same for Millie), and they have both, over these many years, let me know – with great, good humor but serious about it too – that I don't know nothin' yet about getting old.

In fact, it was just those words that both women used in comments last week. Darlene:

”If I could give advice to the young writers I would say: Sometimes we can't plan what we will do in the future.

“...all of you under the age of 80 who are experiencing slowing down should know that 'you ain't seen 'nuttn' yet'.

“I couldn't move fast if the room was on fire. I couldn't think fast if I were to be paid a million dollars for the right answer if given in 60 seconds. There are times when I feel like an old clock that is losing more time every hour. Or maybe an old car whose parts are falling off one by one.

“And yet I am still enjoying these waning years. I can still indulge myself in the activities I am able to enjoy and I have the freedom to set my own time table, slow though it may be.

“So don't fight the aging process and make adjustments in your lifestyle and activities as necessary.”

Millie arrived at the comments that day a while later, after Darlene, and probably didn't see the point in exerting herself to explain old, old age:

”Darlene said it all! 'You ain't seen' nuttn' yet.' Pay attention to everything she said. Words of wisdom - What a lady!”

Through the years, I've listened carefully to both these women; they have much more experience than I. They are nearly a generation older, only 10 years older than my parents. They were kids during the Great Depression; teens during the War; just getting going as adults in the post-War boom and that gives them a different outlook on life – and, undoubtedly, on old age - than me and certainly to baby boomers.

Only a young person could believe that people 50 or 60 and older can be lumped together – either as individuals or collectively.

As several readers have noted on past posts about this topic, finding only one catgory, “65+,” for age when filling in forms or responding to surveys is annoying and it is more than that. It is misleading and can even be dangerous when drawing conclusions from questions related to caregiving and government health policy.

Life is as different between 65 and 85 or 90 and beyond as between infant and teenager. Our culture needs to understand that to be able to make wise or even just useful decisions.

Does Hollywood Ageism Have Anything To Do with You and Me?

In recent weeks there has been a minor flurry of media information – tidbits, mostly – about age and work in relation to female movie stars. I had been sitting on a quotation from actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, wondering what I might do with it until TGB reader Jim Hood mentioned it in an email:

“I’m 37,” Gyllenhaal said in an interview with The Wrap, “and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”

A couple of weeks later, the same website asked 69-year-old actor, Helen Mirren, about Gyllenhaal's experience:

No, you're not imagining it. Mirren did say, “fucking” outrageous. And so it is.

At the same time, however, I am a bit queasy about well-off movie stars complaining about the kind of roles they get. Especially Mirren who continues to make three or four films a year, more than most actors get at any age.

Is it wrong that 50- and 60-something male movie stars are most frequently paired romantically with ingenues? About the only time we see old male actors in movies with age-appropriate love interests are when one of the two is dying. Of recent vintage, Amour comes to mind along with Still Mine.

Okay, maybe The Second Best Marigold Hotel but what a disappointment that movie was with Richard Gere shoehorned in for no apparent reason than his good looks.

Maybe I should mention the most famous reverse age movie, Harold and Maude. But I've always thought there was something mildly creepy about it – the movie, not their age difference - and anyway, one movie in 45 years with an old woman and young man does not balance hundreds of the opposite.

This isn't a new problem for older women in Hollywood. They have been complaining forever about lack of roles in general, let alone not being cast as a romantic interest when they have passed an imaginary use-by date.

In 1972, I produced a television interview with Bette Davis (of “old age ain't for sissies” fame) in which she lamented that back then, no one was writing movies for women actors of a certain age. It hasn't changed much since then, certainly not in the realm of romance.

So is this important? Does it matter that female movie actors - especially stars who make zillions of dollars compared to most of the rest of us - don't get to kiss the leading man after age 35 or 40?

I'm only half convinced that it does – in the sense that celebrities are role models for the rest of us, especially young people who emulate their hair styles, fashion, even behavior. (Cosmetics, automobile and fashion companies don't pay movie stars to shill for their products for no reason.)

If we, the public, repeatedly see movies and TV shows in which old men only pursue 20-something women, I'm pretty sure that has at least as much effect on beliefs about who is attractive and worthy of attention as the commercials starring those same actors enhance the bottom line of the products.

And that in turn may have a great deal to do with your and my lives. If we hardly ever see, in our entertainment, older women as worthy – whether as sex objects or responsible adults – might not we, for example, be refused jobs after age 50 or 60 like those female actors are?

And if I buy this idea, I think it affects men too because for at least the past decade, more than half the movies released in the United States are about bionic, humanoid, Borg-like heroes more suited to video games than real life and against which no human male – of any age - can compete.

Based on all that, Maggie Gyllenhaal's lost movie role with a 55-year-old man might not be as funny as she thinks.

Or maybe it is. I'm not sure. What I'm trying to work out is whether the fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal, Helen Mirren and Bette Davis don't get to make love to an actor their own age on screen has anything to do with the fact that I couldn't get anyone to hire me after age 62.

The Language of Age

A couple of days ago a friend of many years, a smart and talented fellow, sent me this image.

Thinking Old

It gives me a good reason to talk once again about language, the everyday, knee-jerk, unthinking language of age that demeans old people.

When that image arrived, I replied to my friend thusly:

"I don't understand what is wrong with thinking old. I have nearly eight decades of experience. I'm old. I've learned a lot. I certainly hope I'm thinking old."

Let me explain further.

If old people were not universally excluded in all kinds of ways from participation in work, political life, clinical medical trials, among many, many other activities of life while also made invisible; if the word “old” were not, with the exception of antiques, always a negative; if old people were not mocked both for NOT acting their age and FOR acting their age, THEN that phrase and image would be acceptable.

Except, if elders were as respected as people in all other stages of life, there would be no reason for that image and text to exist – it would not have occurred to anyone.

That goes for the phrase “young at heart” too. As with one's mind, what is wrong with an old heart? By the time a person is old, their heart has gone way beyond the classic loved and lost a few times.

You and I have all been heart-broken, heavy-hearted, open-hearted, good- and kind-hearted, big-hearted, light-hearted, soft-hearted, sometimes cold-hearted and even lion-hearted.

With all that, why would anyone think a young heart is better than an old one? Why would society exalt young hearts at the expense of such learned and experienced ones?

Yet that is what happens every time such phrases are repeated.

As all advertisers know, repetition works. We have heard these phrases – young at heart, (don't) think old, and many others that malign elders – since we were children. They are so deeply embedded in our collective psyche as fact that they even infect presidential election politics.

If negative stereotypes were not automatically attached to people older than 60, even 50 in many cases, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not be painted with the “too old” brush as Senator Marco Rubio and others are using as a major campaign tactic.

I understand why people, even old ones, throw around “young at heart” phrases and email images admonishing people to not think old. After a lifetime of hearing them without refutation, they sound like compliments.

They are not and language matters lest it be twisted into Orwellian doublespeak. There is nothing wrong with old minds and hearts.

What Should Be Elders' Place in Society?

Lip service is paid to the wisdom acquired by old people but hardly anyone is interested in making use of it.

Workers as young as 40-something are regularly laid off in favor of recent college graduates and those numbers increase dramatically for employees in their 50s and 60s. Most never again work in their fields or for a comparable salary.

Even if wisdom does not arrive automatically with age (stupid young invariably grows into stupid old), the experience gained by millions of others in lifetimes of work is universally ignored. When you have left the workforce in the United States, it is assumed you are of no further use to society.

What a waste. As Oregon State University researcher, Michelle Barnhart, noted in a 2012 study:

“Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance, and independence are highly valued...Almost every stereotype we associate with being elderly is something negative, from being ‘crotchety’ and unwilling to change to being forgetful.”

There are some organizations such as Senior Corps and Encore, among a few others, that place elders in worthwhile volunteer positions that make use of their expertise, and elders themselves do a lot of local area volunteering.

In general, however, no value is placed on unpaid jobs and once out of the workplace, American society has no interest in old people.

Oh, wait. That's true unless you count members of Congress who make a career out of trying to sneak cuts to Social Security and Medicare into every possible bill where they think they might get away with it, requiring old people to waste large amounts of time counteracting those efforts.

In the United States, there is no public policy at any level that would value, respect, organize and put to use the experience old people have gained in their decades of work.

But what if there were? What if there were a place in society for elders who are capable and willing to continue participating?

What if young and mid-life workers automatically looked to elders for advice, help, assistance, guidance and suggestions whether for business, education, government, childcare, healthcare, technology and everything else that requires attention in modern life?

What if old people were not, as now, expected to forget everything they've learned in 20, 30, 40 years of working?

What if, instead, we were expected to share our knowledge to help, for example, balance the best of the past with the newest developments of modern life? And to help solve society's problems?

What if this is how society worked? How do you think our world would be different?

Give a whirl today and play around with the idea. Let your imaginations run wild on this question: In the best of circumstances, what would be the place of elders in society? Be as specific as you can.

How to Celebrate Older Americans Month

May is Older Americans Month. It is also Jewish American Heritage Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, and National Foster Care Month but this is a blog about growing old.

In case you were wondering, Older Americans Month was proclaimed in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy and that led to the Older Americans Act (OOA) of 1965.

Through that Act, federal agencies, primarily the Administration on Aging, provide services and programs that help local communities promote the well-being of elders, particularly those that help elders live independently in their homes and communities.

So this time of year there are a lot of lunches and other activities to honor old people and I think we should take a day here at TGB to celebrate ourselves too.

We should do that for one day because during all the other 364, the universal doctrine that getting old is the the worst thing that can happen to anyone is what prevails.

If you spend any time at all with any kind of media (in the U.S., certainly), you are relentlessly blasted with anti-aging messages in so many forms that it takes entire books to explain them all. (I know; I own at least three of them.)

The perversion of language is among the worst. The word “young,” for example, is used as a synonym for healthy making the word “old” a synonym for sick. It happens hundreds of times a day in knee-jerk ways in movies, TV shows, books, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, conversation and more.

And it's not just a metaphor. To believe that the definition of old is sick is to cause real illness in yourself and lead to early death. Just accepting the negative stereotypes does that, as a growing body of evidence-based science is showing.

In January this year, CNN explained the results from one of the earliest of these research studies:

”In 2001, researchers from Yale and Harvard University looked at 660 participants between the ages of 50 and 80 who participated in a community-based survey, the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement.

“They measured how self-perception of aging impacted survival over the course of 22.6 years. They found that participants who held a more positive attitude about their own aging - such as continuing to feel useful and happy - lived, on average, 7.5 years longer.

“In fact, they found that perception of aging influenced longevity even more than blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, or a person's tendency to exercise.

And a new study about old age and loneliness, published just last week in England, is the latest in a growing collection of similar results in various aspects of ageing:

”Brunel University London found that expectations and stereotypes of a lonely old age are predictors of actual loneliness. In a sample of 'not lonely' people over the age of 50 years old, a third expected to be lonely and a quarter agreed that old age is a time of loneliness.

“Those with negative stereotypes were twice as likely to report being lonely eight years later and those with low expectations were almost three times more likely to feel this way...

“This is especially significant given the willingness of younger people to accept the stereotype of old age as a time of insecurity, poor health and loneliness - a notion that has persisted in research findings since the 1950s.

“The new research could also shed light on the higher rates of loneliness in England compared with Europe where expectations and stereotypes about old age are quite different.”

Another study has shown that feelings of loneliness increase the risk of premature death by 14 percent.

Note that it is the old person's perception of old age that makes the difference. If you expect to be lonely, to be sick, to be unhappy, to die before your time you are more likely to experience that kind of old age – there is truth to self-fulfilling prophecy.

But you can change that. The way to celebrate Older Americans Month is to check your perspective. Are you harboring stereotypes and anti-aging beliefs about yourself or other old people?

Don't feel bad if you do – they've been brainwashing us about how awful old age is since the cradle. Just take some time to adjust remaining negative attitudes. You'll be healthier and happier for doing so.

Dear Diary: A Foolish Passionate Woman

On reading The New York Times Op-Ed page yesterday, I had a bit of a private snit about columnist Maureen Dowd. As usual. Again.

From that you would be correct to infer I am not a fan. Never have been. But this time it was not her puerile snark or other cheap shots. It was the headline – Granny Get Your Gun – that first caught my attention.

Of course, that might not be Dowd – headlines are most often written by copy editors at The Times. But in this case, whoever did the writing took it directly from references within Dowd's screed:

”...granny in a Scooby van”

“...between Macho Man and Humble Granny”

“...the hokey Chipotle Granny”

Don't be fooled. Dowd's repeated use of “granny” is meant to demean presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the eyes of readers.

This word, granny, the latest affront to the dignity of elders (women in particular although “grandpa” is occasionally bandied about in a similar fashion) is growing in popularity. There are dozens of examples every day due to the fact, I think, that writers believe it can be defended: “I only mean that she's a nice old woman.”

Maybe. Sometimes. Well, no, not really. It doesn't matter if a writer “thinks” granny is a cute way to say old. The word in a news story is far from harmless. It is dismissive, meant to weaken the woman's argument and integrity.

While British newspapers are bigger offenders with this word, the U.S. media isn't far behind. Some recent examples, in addition to Ms. Dowd's, that took me one minute to find on Google:

Huffington Post:
Granny Hair Is The Hottest Beauty Trend Of Spring/Summer 2015

Auburn Granny Tumbles 150 Feet Down Cliff

Runnin' Granny Training for First Blue Ridge Half Marathon

Okay, I cheated with the OregonLive item. Here is the entire headline:

”Auburn Granny Tumbles 150 Feet Down Cliff, 11-Year-Old Grandson Calls 911”

Even a child gets more respect in the media than an old woman. People of every other age group are routinely identified neutrally, by their number of years and full-word designation.

Just as I was sketching out my notes for a blog post about this, getting wound up about the ageism, I took a metaphorical step back: “Why bother, Ronni? Every time you write about ageism, particularly ageist language, at least half of TGB readers dismiss your point.”

It's been going on for years here - some version of “I don't care what anyone calls me,” they comment. Or, “You're over-reacting. It's not important what people call you." “Sticks and stones...” Et cetera.

But, you see, it IS important. Every time (and it's hundreds of times a day) an old person is demeaned with such language, it becomes easier to discriminate against elders in every other way. Refuse to hire them. Withhold certain medical treatment. Cut Social Security. Slash Medicare. It's all related.

So what, I said to myself. Nobody else cares and you haven't convinced anyone to change their mind in all this time.

I considered dropping that blog post and writing about something else. But my fury at Dowd's ageist tactic kept eating at me and I felt my bile rising again.

Then I remembered a couple of lines from a poem by William Butler Yeats. It is one of his lesser works, quite short and titled, A Prayer for Old Age.

God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone;
From all that makes a wise old man
That can be praised of all;
O what am I that I should not seem
For the song's sake a fool?
I pray - for word is out
And prayer comes round again -
That I may seem, though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.

These days, “thinks in a marrow-bone” is more likely to be stated as “know in one's gut” and although there is plenty of solid information, both research and informed opinion, of the harm that results from ageist language, I would know that even without the science and expertise.

“That I may seem though I die old, a foolish, passionate (wo)man,” no one can convince me that ageist language is not discriminatory, prejudicial and cruel.

The Forgotten Generations and Ageism

REMINDER: Beginning today, Time Goes By will not be published on Tuesdays and Thursdays as in the past 10 years. This is an experiment to be re-evaluated in the fall.

In addition, links are no longer appended at the bottom of TGB stories to The Elder Storytelling Place. If you relied on those links to read the other blog, you will need to subscribe at that website.

In what is an otherwise laudable if not particularly special appeal to stop the conflation of old age with death, writer Amy Gutman in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, summed up this way:

”We baby boomers (soon to be joined by our GenX peers) have few guideposts to follow in designing fulfilling and productive lives for 30 more years.

“This makes it all the more important that we both recognize the issue at hand and talk to and learn from one another. For now, our proper focus is not 'aging and death.' It’s 'aging and life.'”

Hey, Amy. I'm older than baby boomers but I'm a long way from dead yet.

In two short sentences, Ms. Gutman has consigned me along with everyone else currently over the age of 68 to irrelevance.

It feels a lot like the years during which the women's movement ignored our sisters who chose full time motherhood. It took decades to repair that lamentable and unnecessary rift.

This time it is the baby boomer generation, replicating the role of careerist feminists, rejecting generations older than themselves (instead of mothers).

Move along now. Nothing to see here, nothing to learn. Only we baby boomers and a few gen-xers need apply.

This is not new from boomers. Hardly a day and certainly not a week passes when I don't find boomer-written references about ageing that specifically exclude anyone older.

(I don't mean to pick on Ms. Gutman but she is emblematic of an ongoing, widespread attitude. She's getting called out only because she is the most recent to raise my hackles and happened to do it on a day I decided to finally speak up.)

Deliberately omitting more than 31 million people (the population age 69 and older) from the conversation about growing old is another of the many forms of ageism.

Although Ms. Gutman and some of her generation appear lately to accept their own aging and want to find ways to change negative attitudes that remove old people from the mainstream of life, she immediately dismisses the one group who actually knows something about “designing a fulfilling and productive” old age.

I suspect the reason is what it has always been – denial:

Oh, I'm not like those old people over there. Don't confuse me with the ones on the bench in the park or the bridge bunch at the senior center. I'm getting old differently from them.

It's not enough to say, as old people too often do, oh, well – their turn will come. If old people are going to ever be accorded the respect and dignity all people deserve, it has to start now. The older generations cannot, should not pit themselves one against the others.

Amy Gutman is right, we need a public conversation about growing old (god knows I've been trying here for 10 years). But it is doomed from the start when any part of the group is excluded.

If Ms. Gutman doesn't think we of the generations older than she have anything worthwhile to say about fulfilling and productive lives in old age, she could start educating herself by reading just one post (among many) at this blog.

There is much that is rich, thoughtful and even wise in last Friday's conversation, filled with a variety of ideas about how to live and contribute during the last third of our lives.

2015 Best Media Effort in Combatting Ageism

Pretty much all media is rife with ageist references and language. Just now as I begin writing this post, Today show host Matt Lauer, droning on in the background, said that actor Florence Henderson is “81 years young.”

Some people believe that's harmless. Others think it's cute. It is neither.

Every time someone uses a euphemism or phrase designed to hide the idea of old age, all old people are incrementally dehumanized. As the man who coined the term "ageism," the late great geriatrician Robert Butler, explained in his introduction to the Encyclopedia of Ageism, there are real-world consequences:

”[Ageism] is found in the reduced delivery of services, time limits to mortgages, depiction in the media and by Madison Avenue, poor nursing homes, passed over promotions, and other prejudices in the workplace. Age discrimination is present in our language and even within families.”

Ageism is commonplace and everywhere but now and then a usually nameless media person strikes a elegant blow against it. That happened Monday evening on an NBC medical drama called Night Shift, set in the emergency room of a fictional hospital in Texas, San Antonio Memorial.

There are plenty of soap opera aspects to the show and, as we discussed a few days ago, more blood and guts than I think is necessary, but this episode also contained a lovely, little lesson about the dangers of ageism.

Before I get further into that, let me note that I awarded the first best media effort to combat ageism way back in 2007 to a police procedural titled,The Closer.

In that episode, a retired reporter named Baxter first confesses to poisoning residents of the nursing home where he lives, then recants his confession. He had used it as a ruse to get the police, who had ignored his warnings about some murders, to pay attention.

When Chief Johnson, played by Kyra Sedgwick, becomes involved in the case, this conversation ensues:

TAYLOR: [The officer who took Baxter’s complaint] Gordon found Baxter uncooperative. In fact, the old guy was more interested in asking questions than answering them. So Detective Gordon dumped his complaint in the round file. You know, Chief, we get this kind of stuff all the time. It’s hard enough staying on top of the crimes we find much less the ones people make up.

JOHNSON: (perusing file) I know exactly what happened. Mr. Baxter is old and difficult and because of that he was just dismissed out of hand. [I know] that’s what happened because that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do to him myself.

As I wrote all those eight years ago:

”Chief Johnson - who could have been speaking for every bureaucrat, healthcare worker, comedian, reporter and thousands of other television shows who regularly condescend to elders - makes an attitude adjustment and with the help of Mr. Baxter's clues, solves the crime.”

Hurray and hallelujah. Such scenes are, to everyone who sees them, important little lessons in understanding, just as negative commentaries, references and language are instructions for continued prejudice and bigotry.

Let me give you the background on Monday's wonderful little lesson. Paul Cummings, played by Robert Bailey, Jr., is the youngest doctor on the emergency room team, serving his internship.

When the longer serving physicians note the arrival of a regular patient, an aging, pain-in-the-ass hypochondriac they know to be the matriarch of the hospital's biggest donor family, they sic her on Dr. Cummings.

Marilyn Capshaw, played by Phyllis Somerville, is behaving in a mildly disruptive and incoherent manner and she tries flirting with Cummings as he tries to examine her.

All the tests come back normal and it takes one of the more experienced doctors to check Capshaw's eyes and tell Cummings that she is stoned out of her mind on weed. Cummings had not tested for cannabis because – you guessed it - she's old.

Here is the excellent little scene in which Capshaw sets Cummings straight about that:

Isn't that a fine piece of writing to debunk a hackneyed assumption about old people? If, while watching it, you did not extrapolate the point into wondering what could happen if such an assumption led to overlooking a life threatening condition, you should have.

Meanwhile, let's hear it for episode writer, Zachary Lutsky, and the show story editor, Gabe Fonseca. There aren't enough of such moments in any media and we must celebrate when they appear.

There must have been other such examples between the 2007 vignette on The Closer and this one but how much television can one old woman watch. It would be a good thing if you, dear readers, kept these two media moments in mind and let me know the particulars when you run across any in the future.

If you want to know more about the show, Night Shift, you'll find plenty of information at the NBC website for it.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Clifford Rothband: What am I, a Duck?