The Unparalleled Experience of Elders
Don't Mess With Elders...

Blaming the (Aging) Victim

[EDITOR'S NOTE: A new story, Women Demeaning Old Women, has been published this morning at blogher.]

category_bug_ageism.gif This blog was founded as a place to put a decade’s worth of research I’d been doing (and continue to do) into aging along with what I think about it and maybe even more, to counter the overwhelming focus in most popular media that old age is a period only of debility, disease and decline.

Three years later, even with all the hoo-hah over the oldest baby boomers entering their sixties, there hasn’t been much improvement in the media. In addition, there is a disturbing trend that has been gaining momentum in the past few years: an increasing number of stories in mainstream media, infomercials, blogs and commercial websites - that decline in old age is a fallacy.

It appears to be growing out of the fraudulent, billion-dollar anti-aging movement with their claims that you can remain as you were at 25 or 35 or 40, indefinitely.

These claims always come wrapped in a superior attitude of secret knowledge. “You’re an idiot and I’m not and I will show you the truth and the way.” Decline is a lie, they say, and if you would only buy this $5,000 CD course or attend that weekend seminar at $2500 or take these secret-formula pills that go for $179.95 per bottle, you too can bench press 500 pounds until you’re 150 years old, not to mention cure cancer and remove warts.

I’m always tempted to write these charlatans to suggest they hang on to my email address. I’d like know how they explain themselves when they have a stroke or a foot is amputated due to diabetes or Alzheimer’s starts chewing holes in their brain.

It’s not the snake oil sales pitch that bothers me. There have always been swindlers and there are always enough suckers to keep them in business. But I am concerned by the increasing insistence that decline is not part of aging.

You may think I am contradicting myself about decline. I am not. Decline is inevitable, but it is only one aspect of getting old and I want to see more reporting about what we gain with age without falling into the fantasyland these gurus claim.

What is important to know about decline – less strength, less stamina, less energy and the other changes that slow us down – is that we age at dramatically different rates and it is not a 50-year-old’s fault if he can’t run a marathon anymore while another – sometimes an 80-year-old - can.

We all know the right things to do to keep us as healthy and strong as possible. It’s easy: eat your fruits and veggies, exercise, don’t smoke and keep your mind active. That’s all you need to know; anything more is commentary. All else being equal, how well one person survives compared to another is due to earlier health conditions, genes and dumb luck.

But the decline deniers are infecting the culture with the insidious implication that if you can’t carry the groceries up the hill anymore or need painkillers to control your arthritis or are giving up driving because your peripheral vision is shot, it is your fault.

This is piling insult upon injury. Already the culture believes that if you are older than 40 or 45, you have become too stupid to hold a job. Already the culture believes that if you look old, you have nothing to contribute. And now we are to be convinced that if you walk more slowly than in the past, climb stairs one at a time now and are worn out after a morning at the mall, you are to blame for not having the right mental attitude.

If this attitude is allowed to grow and take hold (it’s in its early stages), so will ageism increase. Those elders who are lucky enough to show little decline will be held up as paragons (it is already happening) who know how to think right, while those who slow down will be ignored and when not, they will become examples of wrong thinking who are to blame for their arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc.

It is seductive to think that if you are healthier than Ms. Jones or Mr. Smith who is the same age you are, you must have done something right that they didn't do. If you do believe that, don't break your arm patting yourself on the back because it's not necessarily so. Runner Jim Fixx, an athlete credited with helping to create America's fitness revolution, died at 52 of a heart attack. There are many other examples of seemingly healthy people who did everything right but died young.

If you are old and healthy, count your blessings. But don't go thinking it's your superior mental attitude and don't believe those charlatans who tell you decline is all in your head.


Great post, Ronni. I subscribe to all you are saying. I'll add something, if you are old and healthy, count your blessings, but don't count on it lasting forever. We'll all die one day. And probably of some disease...

This is an important post, Ronni. You expose the whole "American-way" of thinking. Pull yourself up by your boot straps and you can lick poverty, grief, age, you name it. It is all up to *one,* the individual. There is no room for an attitude of community support and interdependence that way for anyone. Not single poor parents and their children and not for elders. And certainly in the early childhood field we battle against the view that everyone develops at the same rate and in the same way.

Once again, you keep us alert, aware and open, Ronni. Thank you.

The latest journalism here is talking about the first '1000 year old man' already being amongst us. Presumably this won't be achieved by any means other than spare parts - mechanical and genetically harvested. I guess the physical randomness of ageing as you describe it will be largely eliminated and the governing health factor in survival will be enough cash to pay for the treatments.

Imagine going out with your 600 year old toy boy when you get into four figures.

We are all going to die of something. As a culture, we gain control of one disease after another, in the peurile hope that we can teach ourselves how to live forever.

In my mother's day (she was born in 1905), people died of "old age." Nobody dies of that, any more. We die of specific illnesses and conditions, as if curing them would leave us spry into triple digits.

As long as I'm spry, I'll stick around, but the plan is to let go and be gone when I'm no longer having fun.

It worked for my MIL.

I think you are right that decline is inevitable and that denying the reality of old age change is wrong; but I also think knowing what to do to live as healthy as possible an old age is not necessarily what some are doing. If we are living an unhealthy lifestyle at any age, it's not the result of genes when something goes wrong-- old age just makes it come faster. I have often thought what I could get away with when younger, I can't now. It takes longer to make up for not staying on an exercise regime or eating right.

I believe the point you made is true-- don't judge why someone else is declining faster than you are. At the same time, their decline might be too much sugar, not enough water, not regular exercise, feeling sorry for themselves, etc. The not judging them comes in because sometimes the reason someone stops exercising less is something went wrong inside that they don't yet know (mother-in-law had adult onset diabetes and she had kidney damage as a result which led her to a lot less energy than some her age would have had).

The media seems worse and worse for how their bottomline is always what sells-- not just the ads but the programs. I understand that as business is business; but if people are trusting the media for their information-- buyer beware.

Ah, what a lovely rant. Here I am at 65, and I've had the stroke, had the bypass, and am just now beginning to not move at all well in cold weather. I'm no Mensa member any longer, but I find some parts of life are a lot more fun now that everything has slowed down a bit.

Your post almost made me cry with tears of relief. Thank you for recognising what is obviously a sensitive issue Ronnie.

Ronni: thank you from the bottom of my heart for your probably "best ever" is superb. You've made my day.....& probably made my week. I do so love coming to this blog every day usually for a wonderful surprise. You go, girl! Dee

I wish I was dead now. Thank you for your thoughts, research and obvious compassion. The old hate the young, the young hate the old. There is enough hate in this world to go around twenty universes. I for one am sick and tired and have been since I was about 35. Chronic illness, cancerx2 and mental problems have plagued me, as others, since my early forties. I now longer fantisize about being 21 because I cannot remember what it felt like. Bummer.

Hi Roni,
Today I visited my mom of 85 in the long-term center,,,her nails were painted 'ruby red'! I told my sister, and she remarked, Oh my god, what is she thinking? Maybe mom is getting Alzheimer's....My mom always had her nails done in clear nailpolish.....and I asked my mom who did her nails, and she said, my hairdresser,,,,,and I said, why red, Mom? and she said, because I like it, don't you? Isn't it a nice change?

And I had to laugh,,,,,,because yes, it is a nice change to see that my mom can still make choices. Way to go, Mom!

I had no idea I would be stereotyped as old and used up so quickly.

Many times during my life I have been chastised for not concerning myself with what others think. I now realize this particular character trait is a true blessing!

Anyone who thinks that we don't decline with age just hasn't been there.

Ronni, this is a great post & ohhh so true! I suffered an "old people's disease" at age 31 & it was quite a mental hot foot. It changed my perspective on aging & gave me a new respect for my elders. Now that I'm an elder & still living with the aftereffects
of my illness -- including the discrimination that came with it --I'm as appalled as you are at the mentality as you are. Getting older isn't a mortal sin as some might have us believe. I really get disgusted with those who say
"age is only a number" & "you're only as old as you feel." If those hackneyed phrases are true, why are we discriminated against & discarded as unworthy or useless when that number gets too high? With the rise of the various
"police" abounding in our society-- food, smoke, alcohol, etc.-- it's likely they'll be trying to outlaw old age next & we elders will be the next Holocaust. If that sounds outrageous, then think again. It could happen.

My father-in-law is losing his foot to diabetes and arteriosclerosis next week. Those years of drinking and smoking finally caught up with him.

It was a good reminder to hubby and me to take care of ourselves...

And I'm 48, have had cataracts in both eyes in my forties (second youngest they ever saw), arthritis, high blood pressure, and this last year, a close call with colon cancer - so I know people certainly do encounter disease and illnesses at different rates! I'm sick to death of hearing, "but you're way too young to have that..."

This is one of the very things that has concerned me about getting older...and you are so articulate about it. Our culture emphasizes being forever youthful. My pet peeve is catalogs or advertising that do condescend to depict an older model...they are thin (read emaciated) or simply prematurely grey haired 40 something. Sagging chins, bags under eyes and thick middles are abhorrent, says the media. And the models are always going full speed on bikes or dancing in some romantic setting, even if the advertisement is for an incontince drug.

I so enjoyed the comments, I am going to be 82this month, and if the time comes, that I CANNOT play golf, i jst bought a piano, which I haven't played since I ws a child., but evn with still golfing , ready to take up music when necessary.Thanks so much for the comments

I'm not a fan of those who try to play God. However, I am a fan of self-healing and I believe you can find that inner self and convince it to heal on its own. I've done it myself. I'm 52 and as far as I know except for a few aches and pains here and there, I am disease-free. So far and knock on wood. My boyfriend has diabetes and I'm always hearing him complain even though he doesn't have it that bad. He still has his vision and he still has his limbs, but the way he's talking, he's going to die any day. I've really got to work with him. But, as far me, I don't believe I'm invincible, but I do believe in mind power to heal one's self. I don't have much faith in the medical profession, sad to say, either, so I prefer to heal myself unless it's something that's out of my control.

Agree, agree, agree!
Great article. I wish money didn't rule but since it does and people fear aging/dying there's nothing to be done except "the voice in the wilderness" approach. Do you feel any kinship with John the Baptist by any chance? Beware! He was beheaded!!

I know and believe everything you said here, but if I'm totally honest with myself, darned if it doesn't make me feel good to have fifty year olds express surprise to learn I'm in my seventies. I relish it when they say, "you look and act like us." Keep in mind that's in a work environment, and we're not engaged in a lot of physical activity where in that area a comparison between our age groups would likely show some significant differences.

I recall recently writing on one of your BlogHer posts, I believe, words to the effect "I must be doing something right" with that experience fresh in my mind. I wasn't thinking my actions were fully responsible for the not-heavily-wrinkled status of my skin, as I know many factors contribute to that which you've noted. I also know seventy year olds in much better overall condition than I. For all I know, those fifty year olds (who were assuming I was their age) may have been thinking how young and good they looked compared to my wrinkles. In which case, they must have experienced a great letdown when I told them my age -- now with whom would they compare themselves?:-)I only have to look in the mirror which quickly shows wrinkles that loom large to me, to see how much I've aged.

I do remember feeling fairly smug in my fifties that my mind, body, spirit -- positive attitude -- somehow accounted for my body's state. I still believe they're all important, but into my sixties the realities of physical aging did and do prevail for all of us.

I agree with tamarika as to the significance of what you've written here -- a topic that needs continuous follow-up -- one that has certainly given me pause to think about what I believe, what I say, the language I use, how to bring these thoughts to the forefront of awareness in our society.

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