The Subtlety of Ageism
Childhood Memories and My Recession Garden

Respect for the Debilities of Age

On yesterday's post about ageism, a comment from Tamar, who blogs at Only Connect, caught my attention. She wrote about her “shock” at seeing the old people at her new Tai Chi class, some of whom are becoming frail and dependent, and others who use breathing aids:

“Joining them triggered instant negative feelings: Oh, I can't be here, I'm too young, too this, too that...” she said. “Fears appeared to dominate my negative feelings. What to do with my own stuff? Share honestly, join the conversation at TGB, and embrace me today.”

Right on, Tamar - your instincts are perfect. One of the best ways to deal with uncomfortable feelings is to air them openly (and where better than here among ourselves).

As I wrote yesterday, we have spent a lifetime hearing and reading ageist remarks and no matter what we believe intellectually is the right attitude, it's hard to overcome those prejudices. Plus, we don't wake up one day suddenly old. It comes to us gradually that we have entered new territory and if we are among the lucky ones who (so far) have no serious debilities, we resist aligning ourselves with those who do.

That's all right as long as we recognize what we are doing, as Tamar does. Becoming the oldest generation is a learning experience and an opportunity to begin to overcome the biases against elders everyone is subject to given the pervasive dominance of the youth culture. Just because we are old, doesn't mean we are immune to ageist thought, but it is our job to work at improving our attitude.

I have an advantage over some people in that I have read or thought or written about aspects of aging every day for more than a dozen years, so I have a lot of practice at winnowing out my own subtle prejudices. A simplistic example: when I began this blog, I determined never to use cutesy euphemisms for age and I would not avoid the word “old.”

That word was and still is considered an insult by many, but it shouldn't be – it is only a description. In the beginning, it was so foreign to me in that neutral context, that I recoiled (I think I groaned out loud once trying to write it) and my fingers would barely type the letters.

But it took only about three months of forcing myself to write “old” to get over it - for the word to lose its prejudicial baggage. Now it amuses me to see the verbal gyrations some people engage in to avoid using “old.”

We grow and we learn. We rightly fear becoming debilitated as we age. At the most basic level for me, it would be a pain in the ass to have difficulty getting around or breathing or whatever else might one day limit me. But them's the breaks for some of us and the best we can do is accommodate changes when they occur.

Until then, when we presumably adopt a more charitable attitude toward the debilities of age, we can confront our fears and prejudices against others who are not as lucky as we are (although it doesn't need to be in public as Tamar is bravely doing) and in that way overcome them.

If we want the respect of younger people and the culture at large as we get older, we must also respect and accept all elders as members of our tribe, whatever their condition. Sometimes it just takes practice.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Sybil Reichek considers one of those big, round-number birthdays in An Octogenarian's Lament.


It's interesting to read about Tamar's shock at the aged in her Tai Chi class. Tai Chi has long been a venerable practice by the aged in China, and when I took classes over a decade ago one of the teachers was in his 80s. I rather associate Tai Chi with old (there, I used the word!) people who refuse to define their boundaries between the arms of a comfortable chair.

Several years ago I was getting gas in my car in the early morning. The gas station bordered the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant, and in the back of the restaurant was the obvious living space for the owners. An old (used it again) Chinese woman was standing in the first rays of the sun, out there in the empty parking lot, doing her Tai Chi. The image was haunting, brave, and beautiful and I've never forgotten it.

Yesterday at the dollar store, I was served by a senior woman who obviously loves being there. She was patient, smiling and capable. I so felt like asking her if she has to work, or simply wants to be busy. All the other staff in the store are way younger. I'm on the lookout for seniors on the job.


Could our discomfort with "gray" as in Gray Panthers what has kept more people from joining up? GP is a viable organization, new chapters in Boston, Portland Maine, and Columbus, Ohio. Very modest dues.

Tamar highlights the problem with the next step: going to a meeting, being one with the other gray hairs in real time. Aging is another 12-step challenge.

I guess I'm now officially old. After seven months as a fulltime caregiver for my wife while she battled ovarian cancer (she's in remission and back at work now!) I decided it was time to retire. I bit the bullet and signed up for Social Security a week ago.

For a day or two, I experienced considerable internal turmoil, but now I realize I have been liberated. It takes a lifetime to prepare for being old. I'm about to start finding out how well I've done.

I've taken on a couple of volunteer commitments, and I've added a new post (the first in three months) to As I Was Saying. This just might be all right!

Thanks to Naomi for the reminder about the Gray Panthers. I remember Maggie Kuhn so well & her autobiography is well worth reading. I just wish her legacy had gained more attention.....I learned alot from her as I prepared for old age. Dee

Tamar spoted signs of "dependency" in her new Tai Chi classmates, such as breathing machines.

The irony is that assistance devices - mobility aids such as canes, oxygen/breathers, etc. - exist to help people stay INDEPENDENT.

At a recent conference, Linda Resnik from Brown University's Center for Gerontology cited stats about the use of mobility aids. I believe it was 30% of men over 60 use them, as do 40% of women over 60. But because of social stigmas, many more elders won't use the aids and find the quality of their lives poorer for it.

What a shame that people who take action to stay independent are then seen as dependent by society.

This is just lovely and wonderful stuff. A quick "Thank you" to you, Ronni, for this blog and this opportunity to learn from all the people who comment.

Both posts, yesterday and today's really have spoken to me.

A couple of days ago I noticed my reflection in my laptop's screen. I wasn't seeing myself primped, as I do in the bathroom mirror, but more realistically. And, I note I look old. Its really happening to me. When I retired, people expressed surprise at finding out my age. I don't think anyone would express surprise now.

I think I am OK with this. I do wish frankly for the resources to get my eyes worked on, or my chin. But really, why waste mental energy on this? At this stage in my life it really is inside that counts. And becoming old is a gift.

Thank you Ronni for writing frankly about being old.

After I retired I got involved in starting a group of elders interested in weekly outdoor activities. We were all active and healthy. The first big hike I lead was a grueling one in the Cascade Mountains. A gentleman showed up at the meeting location who was obviously much older than the rest. I worried would he make it. Not only did he make it, he practically led the way. Last week he was on another hike with us celebrating his 82nd birthday. As much as he regretted it, he only went halfway relaxing in a field of wildflowers while waiting for us to get back. And what I am learning is that we will slow down and learn to relax in the wildflowers. And that is a good thing.

Funny that the subject of Tai Chi should come up today, as I was just sent a book about Tai Chi and Qi Gong for review. The author, who trained in China, talks about how old men and women can be seen everywhere there, practicing these ancient disciplines in parks and gardens - as indeed they used to do near where I lived in San Francisco.
He writes "We would all like to grow old gracefully, retain as best we can our balance and co-ordination, our good health and vigour, our intellect and independence. In China this is often referred to as 'Eternal Spring.' " And Eternal Spring is in fact the title of his book.
That title shocked me at first, sensitized as I am to the ageist language of our own culture. It sounded suspiciously like 'eternal youth!'
But on reflection I can see that Spring is not so much about youth as about newness and beginnings. And getting old, paradoxically, has a lot of beginnings in it. The first gray hair, the first pair of specs, the first twinge in a joint, and, as William Thomas points out, all the new adaptations we have to make - and keep making - as our bodies age. And the new dependencies. Today it is hiking poles; tomorrow, perhaps, a Zimmer frame. Each the beginning of a new phase of our lives. Each a new challenge, a new triumph, a new Spring. It's not about denial of aging but about glorying in our ability to do it. Celebrating our willingness and ability to age well. And to die well when the time comes.

As I read Tamar's comment yesterday I was reminded of a story that happened many years ago. I had a young friend whose family found it necessary to place their 75 year old grandmother in a home for the elderly. They took her to visit and she refused to live there. When asked why, she said she didn't want to live with all those old people.

I think many of us do not see ourselves as being as old as others our age. It's a form of denial that has its roots in ageism

"And what I am learning is that we will slow down and learn to relax in the wildflowers. And that is a good thing."

That a beautiful and poetic thought expressed by Mary up thread.

“members of our tribe” I just love as well as need to think of myself as a member of the tribe…Thanks…

I've always been a proponent of multi-generational living. Grandparents pass along great knowledge to their children and grandchildren, and the younger generations learn tremendous life lessons while sustaining and feeding the life energy in the elder generation. My home is multi-generational -- my mother, myself and my 9-year old daughter. It is a bit of heaven. My very active mother bristled, last week, at discovering that an "open-ended" 50's plus temple group, in fact was discriminating by only advertising events directly to those younger than 70 because they didn't want the old-old there. That is the old discriminating against the older.

When one suffers a massive stroke ar age 31 as I did 30 years ago, one acquires an appreciation for the plight of elders. I spent months with my elders in therapy and made a lot of friends -- most of whom are now gone and I miss greatly.

The rehab team started a support group for us and I served as the first president. Meetings were great -- we had excellent speakers (including actress Patricia Neal) it gave us the opportunity connect with each other and share how we, and our families, met the challenges of our disabilities.

As one of the 'youngsters' of our group, I acquired a real appreciation for "elders" and the problems that they faced. In the past 30 years I've experienced the discrmination against the disabled and elders. It's not fun.

The good news is that, if caught in time, stroke is no longer as big a threat as it once was and recovery is no longer as devastating.

Bette Davis didn't lie when she said, "Getting old ain't for sissies."

I just came home from my first time in physical therapy. I went for sciatica (sp)!!! The therapist had me do exercises...a very dirty word in my vocabulary. She also said practice them at home and take walks!!!! More dirty words...OMG - next thing you know I'll have to play some "ball" sport...not in this life time - I'll save it for the "other side." Thanks Ronni and all for the interesting and timely information.

Is it called the Golden Age because of the rust or the urine? That is the question for today...

To me, a sense of humor is the most important attribute for all ages. Belly laughs are therapeutic, even as faces sag, hair vanishes and bunions burn.

There is a movie with Billy Crystal, darn- I can't remember the name of that film. But I DO remember the scene that still cracks me's when Billy Crystal whacks someone on the head with a bed pan. The DINGGG
sound of pan to noggin had me laughing hard for the rest of the movie. Does anyone know which movie it is, so I can go and rent it for a rainy day?

I'm proud to be a member of our tribe! And don't mind saying I'm old. But there aren't as many firsts in my old age. My first gray hairs sprouted at 22 and had an arthritic hip by the late 40s.

My husband uses a cane or walking stick, and it would help with my own sometime-difficulties, but it's harder for a woman to walk using an aid. I have to carry a queen-sized purse with all manner of supplies, no over-the-shoulder bag due to other problems, so if I used a cane there wouldn't be one hand free to carry anything else. I prefer to shop at stores with carts, like WalMart, because that solves the no-hands dilemma.

My personal pet peeve involving routine discrimination against older people is that you read headlines saying "Elderly driver plows into crowd, injures seven," but never see one saying "Young driver" does the same--even when they do.

When I see someone out, like a restaurant or in the store and they are using a walker or wheelchair, I always think good and what guts that they get out and do it despite it being harder to get around. I hope I am like that when I get to that point. If we are fortunate enough to live long enough, we all will get to where getting around isn't so easy. It's the cycle of life and you never really know how it'll be for you not even based on relatives.

I belong to an outstanding women's-only health club. The youngest members are 18, and I would guess the oldest to be late 80s/early 90s. The young women are learning early on that physical activity and ability aren't limited to the young.

The very good news about getting old is that we are closer to finding out whether or not there is an afterlife!! Kind of exciting, in a way.....sort of, kind of...

Sadly, not everyone enjoys Tai Chi practitioners. A local baptist church has banned them, claiming they booked the hall through stealth.

I, too was, admiring of Tamar's candor in yesterday's post and I thought about it a lot. I am also discovering how difficult it is to be conscious of adopted expressions. I can recall 30 years ago having an African American friend of mine wince over something I said because I didn't understand the inference. She gently corrected me and explained why what I said was harmful. I was embarrassed but she knew about this adopted speech and that I did not mean it in the way it came out. The incident became a powerful learning experience for me. Now, I see that I am in a position to gently open myself and others to examining unexamined adopted expressions. No doubt, I will put my foot in my mouth again with ageist remarks...but maybe not so much now. I'm not as agile as once was!

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