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The Can’t-Waits

Invisible Moments

category_bug_ageism.gif In What Are Old People For?, Dr. William H. Thomas notes that

“…elders are pressured to keep up the pace, to continue to achieve and society’s highest praise for old people is reserved for those who most resemble adults in their appearance and behavior. And when they no longer are capable of holding up that pretense, they are made invisible to the culture…” [emphasis added]

Dr. Thomas was referring to the warehousing of elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, but long before old people are ready for that indignity, they are made invisible in dozens of small ways every day.

Maria writes about this at her blog, Silver Fox Whispers and she was gracious enough to send me two real-life examples:

“We had dinner with friends and after desert, the men moved into the living room. Two younger men became engaged in a lively discussion. My husband who was sitting with them felt he had something pertinent to add. He tried three times to interject an opinion. Each time he was ignored. The guys went on as if he wasn't there. He finally got up and walked away. They didn't even realize he left the room. He felt less than valued.”

“I was visiting my daughter…There had been a block party the week before and her partner mentioned it at dinner. Then she got a few photos taken the night of the party [and] passed them right over my head, so to speak, to share with other friends closer in age to her at the table. I was hurt and I was damned if I was going to say, ‘Please may I see them, too.’ The photos went around the table and back to the partner, who then put them away. I silently fumed the night away.”

After a certain age, these invisible moments come ‘round more frequently. Waiting on line to buy a toasted bagel recently, the counter kid’s eyes passed right by me to the next man as though I wasn’t there. It’s not the first time it happened and it won’t be the last.

Increasing invisibility is one of the downsides of aging that reveal how little interest in or value the culture places on old people. It’s something we share with kids, as Shel Silverstein once pointed out:

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”

The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the old man.”

Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”

“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”

And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the old man.


I wonder if it also is in part due to the, how shall I say it, relative lack of courtesy that is shown by the younger generations. We were taught politeness and compassion, and it may also be why the elderly sometimes drop that habit as they age--because they see that it is no longer a highly valued trait in society. This is a generalization, I realize.

It isn't just older people. Anyone in a wheelchair disappears too, to the extent that people will ask the companion about what the wheelchair occupant wants.

My first thought in reading this post was to question the meaning Dr. Thomas might have intended to invest in the phrase "...those who most resemble adults." I find it curious to imagine that "adulthood" ends with aging - a new thought for me and one I put in suspicion. Second thought: I would argue with Ian that invisibility is a condition suffered by many regardless of age. Though I recognize a more particular kind of pain in becoming invisible with age if you have spent some part of your life more or less visible in a significant way, I imagine the kind of invisibility Maria and her husband experienced at dinner might have occurred as easily to individuals of any age or, as Ian notes, to those of various body-life expressions. In the swirl of changing cultural patterns, it seems that responsibility for visibility is more and more shifting, like so many other responsibilities, to the individual - for the better or worse of it. Though I hurt for the offense Maria suffered at the dinner party, I hope the next time pictures are passed over her head she'll grab them from the girl and insert herself into the conversation - "politely" of course.

I think women over forty are used to this invisibility. Being just over sixty, I've now become accustomed to it and expect it. Gloria Steinem once said in an interview that she looked forward aging, to the years that she wouldn't be viewed as a sex-object, that she would feel less self-conscious about her looks, and thus freer to go her own way.

I have experienced the invisibility of the "old" and I resent it.

I have noticed, however, whenever it is cold in Georgia (which is not often) and I wear my full length mink coat, I am no longer ignored by sales clerks and the like. They then seem to see dollar signs and not just a little old lady.
I was 75 my last birthday and I want the respect that Rodney Dangerfield said he never got.:)

"In the swirl of changing cultural patterns, it seems that responsibility for visibility is more and more shifting, like so many other responsibilities, to the individual - for the better or worse of it."......sounds "blame the victem to me. (Make the old person "responsible".) Old Age bias is REAL.
And each one of us must be very aware of that. Dealing with it begins by realizing that "Adulthood" ends....and "Elderhood" begins as Dr. William H. Thomas also notes

Listen to what a mental health expert has to say.
"Although aging is a natural process experienced by every living organism, ageism is a social phenomenon that is culture-specific, composed of usually negative societal attitudes, assumptions, and behavior regarding aging, old age, and the aged population .

The tendency to pathologize everything about old people leads directly to diagnosing many as mentally ill when they are not. The psychiatrist who interprets the misery of the elderly as an illness helps to perpetuate a vicious form of oppression" (Seymour Halleck, The Politics of Therapy,1971, p. 113). Factors that have an emotional impact on the well-being of old people are further exacerbated by living in a society in which the old are regularly ignored, demeaned, scapegoated, and treated as distasteful and ridiculous. Such ageist treatment hurts targeted people, making them feel depressed, outcast, angry, and ashamed.

Age bias includes a troubling combination of invisibility and hypervisibility in the mental health field and in society generally. This combination also manifests itself in the intense phobia affecting people of all ages about calling old people "old." The word is commonly avoided, replaced by " elderly," "senior citizens," or people in "late life," their "retirement years," or "golden years."

Invisibility may lead to underdiagnosing the symptoms that bring old people into mental health offices, and this can result in the withholding of necessary services, while hypervisibility can lead to overdiagnosing, overmedicating, and even institutionalizing people who may not need it, resulting in further deterioration . The aged poor are subject to class prejudice as well as age bias and are even more likely to be ignored or overdiagnosed.

When institutionalized due to overdiagnosis, they are often subjected to the worst possible treatment in poorly funded, understaffed institutions. Even experienced and well-meaning clinicians may find themselves caught between the two mistakes of either ignoring or overdiagnosing old people, especially if the clinicians do not consistently examine their own ageist assumptions (See J.E. Myers, Aging: An overview for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling 12, p. 245-59,1990).

This is not to say that medication and diagnostic labels are to be completely avoided in treating old people but rather that special care is required to make sure that the old person's complaints are neither dismissed as simply part of aging nor overdiagnosed and overmedicated. When physicians prescribe medication, they may medication, they may neglect to adjust the dosage for age or to evaluate all of the patient's other medications and medical conditions. Since many medications used by old people affect mood and mental functioning, these need to be considered in diagnostic decisions.

Like people of any age, old people can benefit from and are entitled to supportive services, counseling, understanding, and problem solving when they are grieving, isolated, and afraid. Failing strength, illness, isolation, and the fear of death, all of which are associated with aging, though formidable, do not in­evitably cause depression. Many an old person can live with grace and dignity. The fact is that a number of old people withdraw to some extent for a variety of reasons, such as that they may have less energy than when they were younger, they are ignored in social situations, their friends and agemates have died or moved away, and/or younger people have not responded to their overtures of friendship. When some of these hurdles are removed, when op­portunities for engagement and activity are provided, as in some retirement communities, senior centers, and health clubs, old people can be fully en­gaged in activities and relationships.

The problem for those who have not yet achieved or acknowledged old age is that they are so uncomfortable when an old person's sorrow, fear, anger, or longing comes to their attention that they attempt to distance themselves from the messenger of such feelings by pathologizing the person and the feelings.

Fundamental to the process of diagnosing people is the question, "Who is the patient?" Whom is supposed to be treated or diagnose when a relative or caregiver brings an old person to a therapist? Is it the old person, the relative, or the family? There is no simple answer, but the old person's needs must be primary, even when one addresses the relationships of family members. Relatives and caregivers often need help in coming to understand their own feelings, their ambivalence and fears, as well as those of the person they brought for treatment. Whose needs are being met when the old person is given a psychiatric label or is medicated or institutionalized? The practitioner must be careful to recommend what is best for the old person, without colluding with family members in prescribing a solution that is detrimental or distasteful to the old person; the solution that gives relief to relatives who want the old person classified as "the problem" may or may not be what's best for the old person. The available alternatives for old people who need special care are never perfect or easy to choose, but skillful, caring mental health experts can help the family sort it out.

Also, exactly how much loss of function or damage is "normal" for an old person and at what stage of "old"? The label "old" is associated with a deficit model of advanced age, a model that is grounded in a deep fear of death, an overemphasis on youth and physical perfection, and a multitude of ageist biases and misinformation.

Although aging is a natural process experienced by every living organism, ageism is a social phenomenon that is culture-specific, composed of usually negative societal attitudes, assumptions, and behavior regarding aging, old age, and the aged population . The deficiency model of aging and the power and pervasiveness of ageism, as well as its invisibility as a form of bias and oppression, increase the frequency with which people are pathologized simply because they are old.

Instead, a model of late life, in which old age is considered an important developmental stage in the life cycle, with a focus on the strengths, courage, and creativity that old people exhibit in coping with the numerous and never-ending challenges of old age, should also validate the contributions to society that people make in old age as they continue to touch many lives.

So tragic. So true. For a realtime account of one sad case:

That's why I plan to become one of those outragious old ladies with bit hat, fast car, and (daydreaming now) younger men. I'll be 50 in Nov. and I refuse to fade away. Hell, I worked hard to get to this stage of life and I plan to enjoy it to the max.

I am watching this happen to my vital, social, outrageous mother now. She is becoming invisible. She doesn't walk much anymore -- we got her a chair, and she is talked down to (literally), ignored, not seen, when she still wishes to socialize and speak to people when we go out. Someone in the grocery store addressed me yesterday, "Oh, I see you got her out today." I couldn't respond. I was angry that she didn't address Mom directly.

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