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.