Here is how ageist beliefs are maintained and reinforced. All three of these incidents turned up, one after the other, in under an hour of random surfing with television news on in the background.
- In a tech blog post explaining how to teach a newbie to use a computer: “Be calm and talk slow…Talking slow and loudly (for seniors) will make this process much easier for them and less stressful for you. Be prepared to explain the same thing multiple times. This will mostly apply to seniors because they often have problems hearing. So always talk VERY slow.”
- On a blog reviewing a hair coloring product: “Getting older can be less obvious thanks to [product name] hair color…Now that I am freshly coiffed and colored, I am headed over to Starbucks to hang out with the younger crowd!”
- On a cable news program: when a guest economist made an historical reference to a middling past he had lived through, the anchorette conducting the interview told him with a smirk that of course, unlike him, she is not old enough to remember those days (nudge, nudge, tee hee).
In the last example, which gets much wider distribution than the blog items, the moment was fleeting – two or three seconds. And gratuitous. It had nothing to do with the news item, which was about inflation.
The message pounded home through repetitions as brief as these doesn’t require overtly offensive statements, such as many that are lobbed at Senator John McCain about his age. As every advertiser and President Bush’s speech writers know, any idea repeated frequently enough becomes conventional wisdom.
In just these ways - in print, on television, in movies, books, advertising and the internet - hundreds, maybe thousands of times every day, elders are maligned, demeaned and ageism in made acceptable, even encouraged. The more time you spend in these venues – and who does not? - the more frequently you will run into them, as do millions of people every day.
I am not infrequently taken to task for harping on these so-called minor indiscretions against elders and accused of having a victim mentality. Let me be clear. They are not minor and they cannot be dismissed as indiscretions. They are bigotry against a particular segment of society. And, when you speak up to defend yourself, you are no longer a victim.
If as many statements as offensive, gratuitous and repetitive as these were as widely and frequently made about women or people of color, there would be headlines, speeches and Congressional hearings. But one difficulty with combating ageism is that the offenders don’t even know they are being offensive due to the ubiquity and tolerance of what they are saying.
So as with the women’s and civil rights movements of the 1960s, it is up to the abused and maligned to fight for the respect and dignity all people must be granted to create and maintain a civil society.
The late Claude Pepper, Democrat of Florida who served in the U.S. House and Senate from 1936 until his death in 1989, was American elders’ best friend in the political arena, using his public profile to raise awareness of the needs of old people. For many years he chaired the House Committee on Aging. That committee no longer exists.
“Old age will only be respected when it fights for itself, maintains its rights, avoids dependence on anyone, and asserts control over its own last breath.”
- - Marcus Tullius Cicero
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Celia Jones recalls her Nevada wedding during college in A Gamble on White Lace and Promises.]