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Respect for the Debilities of Age

The Subtlety of Ageism

category_bug_ageism.gif In his forward to the Encyclopedia of Ageism, gerontologist Robert N. Butler writes:

“I first confronted ageism in medical school. We were not taught much about older people, and, indeed, basic knowledge of human aging was minimal. I was shocked at the medical lexicon concerning older persons, abounding as it did with cruel and pejorative terms, such as crock...

Ageism, of course is not isolated within the medical culture. It is pervasive, gross and subtle, and omnipresent.” [emphasis added]

That last sentence cannot be emphasized enough. So common are subtle ageist references that hardly anyone notices the hundreds, perhaps thousands that appear in various media each day. I had intended to hold off writing this piece until I had 15 or 20 examples, but that would be painfully redundant to read. Five will do, four from The New York Times which I read first thing in the morning when my mind is fresh and easily catches ageist lapses:

Columnist Frank Rich:
“But the former party of Lincoln and liberty has now melted down to a fundamentalist core of aging, rural Dixiecrats and intrusive scolds...”

Lloyd Braun quoted by reporter Brooks Barnes:
“We didn’t want to be nasty, and we didn’t want to be your grandmother’s take on celebrity,”

Columnist David Pogue quoting a reader of his Twitter feed:
“ least one person has carefully compiled a list of the 99 videos he thinks you need for a basic education (as he puts it, 'unless you're a loser or old or something').”

Book reviewer Janet Maslin:
“Mr. Leonard, now 83, still writes with high style, great energy, unflappable cool and a jubilant love of the game.”

So in the space of four sentences from a variety of what are undoubtedly normal, ordinary, nice people, elders are subtlely and gratuitously maligned - in passing while discussing something else - to be political fundamentalists, scolds, sickly sweet, losers and surprisingly able to “still” write a good story at an advanced age.

These may seem like small indiscretions not worth mentioning, but when we are bombarded with them every day in all media, they are effective in perpetuating the stereotypes of age. Even, supposedly targeting readers in the third and last age of life, consistently undermines elders with messages promoting the preservation of youth by any means:

“We can slow the clock by maintaining good health habits, and we can also take advantage of cosmetic surgery to keep ourselves looking youthful.”

Why are old people so widely and frequently stigmatized? Because people have heard these disparaging remarks nearly every day from the cradle and since hardly anyone objects, assume they are acceptable. Repetition dulls critical thinking so when old women are repeatedly referred to, for example, as old bags, people believe it's okay.

One way I've tried, in the past, to demonstrate the offensiveness of ageist speech is to apply The TGB Bias Test which substitutes racial or gender references in place of the original ageist ones. Let's give it a whirl on the quotations above:

• “a fundamentalist core of aging female, rural Dixiecrats and intrusive scolds...”

• “we didn’t want to be your grandmother’s black person’s take on celebrity”

• “unless you're a loser or old a woman or something”

• “Mr. Leonard, now 83 who is black, still writes with high style”

• “take advantage of cosmetic surgery to keep ourselves looking youthful white.

Ridiculous? Of course. Offensive? Definitely. They would not get past the editor's blue pencil as the original references did; but no one notices when the words refer to age.

Many people, including some elders, dismiss ageism as not on a par with racism and sexism, but I believe it is not only equal, it affects more people because everyone, no matter their race or gender, gets old.

Ageism is also harmful to our health as Yale psychology professor, Becca Levy, has shown in numerous studies. In one, she and her colleagues tried

“...a method that was used to study the effects of stereotypes about race and gender. The idea is to flash provocative words too quickly for people to be aware they read them.

“In her first study, Dr. Levy tested the memories of 90 healthy older people. Then she flashed positive words about aging like 'guidance,' 'wise,' 'alert,' 'sage' and 'learned' and tested them again. Their memories were better and they even walked faster.

“Next, she flashed negative words like 'dementia, 'decline,' 'senile,' 'confused' and 'decrepit.' This time, her subjects' memories were worse, and their walking paces slowed.”
- The New York Times, 5 October 2006

Writing in the Encyclopedia of Ageism, Professor Levy notes,

“Ageism operates on two levels: conscious (aware, controlled, or explicit) and unconscious (unaware, automatic, or implicit). Both levels apply to the targets as well as the targeters. That is, individuals can perpetuate ageism or be victimized by it, whether or not they are aware of the process.”

I am inclined to believe that the subtle and consistently negative media stereotyping of elders is due to unconscious ageism instilled and repeated from childhood which makes it hard to counter. The only way I know is to point it out – again and again and again and...

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine is thinking about gray hair in her poem, Silver Threads.


Let me be the first to comment.
The term that young people love to use is "old geiser". I think it is the nastiest of the derogatory terms applied to us.

Elders are being pushed to the side, especially in these hard economic times, as expendable. Since there are not enough resources to go around, why apply to them to "geisers". If the economic boat is taking on water, they would prefer we not enter the lifeboat.

The biggest battleground seems to be social security and the anti-aging propoganda is mounting in preparation for this onslaught.

I think we should organize and start fighting back now before THEY convince everybody that it's ok to push US overboard. How do I join the Gray Panthers?

I remember the Gray Panthers....they did a great job. Are they still with us? Here's something you should know: in my prior job, we did a lot of research on shopping and paying habits of elders. Guess what? The over 65 market spent $3 trillion dollars annually in purchasing items: from homes to cosemetics. THAT IS HUGE! Yes it was prior to the economic downturn but we have economic power if we stick together!

Being laid off has been a great gift. I was insulated from having to deal with a lot of ageist issues while working and getting a good salary, and great benefits.

Now, the truth prevails. I am one with you. Everything happens for a I have a mission

Yes, it is up to every one of us not just to tut tut about it but to call people on it as often as possible, even if it gets tedious and even if we get accused of being pedantic, fussy, obsessed or whatever. It's like ground elder; keep pulling it up and hope the roots will eventually weaken.
When one points out people's thoughtless ageism to them, one often sees a shock of realization dawn. I like to think it shocks them awake. I mentally chalk those moments up as bits of work well done.

When a huge segment of society is relentlessly shoved aside, pacified with pills, laughed at, seen as has-beens, ask yourself:

who benefits?

When people known as the "Greatest Generation" are ignored, why?

When an 86 year old sweetheart woman I met last night at a volunteer dinner..tearfully tells me, a perfect stranger,that her kids pushed her out of her home and into a senior living complex, I feel like crying.

They convinced her she was being "selfish" to stay alone in her home, even though she was managing well.

The woman told me she never wants to see her home again. Too many emotions attached to the place where she raised two children, felt love, security, had a car, did her own shopping and lived a full life.

Whatever we do to seniors, it shall be done to us.

Remember that.

We are in a great position to turn the degradation of seniors around, if and when we gather strength in numbers and use our collective heads for more than hat racks.

Gray Panthers. I'm going to research that group.

Now, not yesterday,is the time to collaborate, educate, show respect for all generations, and get the job of living peacefully between generations done.

I would rather bump myself off than be forced into a senior living complex against my wishes.

Seniors hate losing their cars. Is there a way seniors could still drive an electric vehicle in a special senior lane?

Is there a way a private company could provide door to door transportation for seniors at a low cost?

Didn't we put a man on the moon? Can't we use our creative brains to come up with solutions that would include seniors in every aspect of life?

This ageism thing is a rock in my shoe that won't go away.

Gray Panthers are still kicking in San Francisco:
This was a rally about cuts in elder services I attended yesterday. Lots more pictures at my blog here.

I have lots of ambivalence about service providers -- but it was a great day in the sun.

And the ageism is within me, too. A friend took me to her tai chi class at the senior center. The teacher was terrific, the price was right, the place close to home, the people in the class delightful. The problem? My shock on seeing my "older" classmates. Joining them triggered instant negative feelings: Oh, I can't be here, I'm too young, too this, too that. In the class, some people had breathing machines, limited range of motion, and signs of increasing fragility and dependency. (These signs have haunted me since watching my mother succumb to dementia in her early eighties... and marking her 98th birthday tomorrow). 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.

Volunteering as a representative for the state in nursing homes has been some of the best experiences in my life as well as some of the worse whether they were in a location many feared to travel or in a supposedly highly desirable setting.
I don’t see myself as a person one has to warn others as now entering the building. However, I learned that was what was done as soon as someone working at the home spotted me. If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does.
One has to wonder why all the hoop-la to help us live longer when we don’t value old age to begin with…Just writing this conjures up the anger felt then and main reason I no longer volunteer.
Ageism is all around us and it's hurtful!!!

Thanks for this post. Ageism was the initial catalyst for me starting to write a play on ageing--which turns out to be a musical. The play covers various kinds of ageism (and offers some creative responses). It also explores the pervasive imitation of youth and the deeper value of aging as a stage of human development through dramatic vignettes and songs. I am hoping to have it ready for production very soon, and it's my intention to use it as a vehicle for social education and change.

Gray Panthers here I come!
I can see my calling coming into focus. Time to fight back. I can see the army as it will be and ready to form. The cause is just and it is right. We can wait no longer. AARP, I'm sorry, is not the answer. Priority #1 is to save Social Security and Medicare--Let's not rest until it's secure. Go team Gray--We can do it.

When will Madison Avenue 'get it'? We elders have more spendable cash, more time to spend it, and time to read up on the products. Then why is all the advertising tilted toward the young? Could it be that our wrinkled faces can't compare with that ditzy Miss California they are obsessing about?

I guess it's up to us to educate them. Every time you see an ageist piece, call the guilty advertiser or media and complain loud and long.

That's their website.

Excellent article, Ronni. I learned something today. Have never heard of the TGB bias test. I wonder if you could give a little background on it in a later post? I intend to use it myself.

I agree, this could be a mission for those of who are willing to write articles to our paper, or to comment on blog posts when we notice ageist comments.

Thanks again.


The TGB (Time Goes By) Bias Test is just something I invented a few years ago when I first started writing about the casual ageism that turns up every day in newspapers, magazines, television shows, movies, blogs and general conversation.

It's everywhere, but few people believe ageist language is important and I wanted a dramatic way to show that ageism is as destructive as sexism and racism.

Not so long ago, referring to women of all ages as "girls" and to blacks using the N word was common and people thought nothing was wrong with it.

During the civil rights movement, blacks insisted that the N word was prejudicial and demanded the use of black (some prefer African-American). Women followed suit and insisted on women for grownups. It has made a difference for both groups.

Sometimes, however, I think we go too far with the latter. I too frequently see such newspaper descriptions as "the 15-year-old woman." I don't think there should be an official cutoff for the use of "girl," but some writers need to be more sensible.

Thank you for pointing out the many ways we perpetuate ageism. As a child, I learned it was far easier to crack a joke about myself before the bully bellowed his insulting digs. I got the laughs first. I hadn't realized until just now that as I've aged, and felt the sting of ageism in the workplace, especially, I've taken to making exaggerated jokes about my rickety knees and the difficulty getting just the right angle on my progressive lenses. I will think before I say these things going forward.

Enjoy reading this article on ageism, a topic about which you write so well.

I think the term John finds so offensive is one I've heard and find so distasteful -- "geezer" not geiser. It's a very derogatory term applied to aged males for insulting purposes. Have never understood why use of that term can be acceptable here as humorous and why so many other offensive ones said with similar humorous intent are not acceptable. ;-)

I've been sensitive recently to numerous instances when the term "sweetie" was repeatedly used when addressing me by a well-meaning middle-aged woman. I don't think she was from the South or I could more easily have accepted it, as in my experience Southern service people often use such terms to people of all ages and I long ago became used to it there.

I grew up exposed to and just naturally respectful toward aged people. We always gave our seat to older people on public transportation. Some months ago when traveling on such a transport a trio of young people made no attempt to do so for me. Maybe I didn't look old enough.;-) One young girl was occupying a seat with special limited designation though she clearly did not meet the criteria. A middle-aged looking Hispanic woman saw me clinging to a rail and being jerked around with rapid stops and starts and after a while offered me her seat. I had noticed her earlier, asleep in the seat and thought she appeared quite fatigued even after she awoke. Right or wrong it crossed my mind based on her attire that she had probably had a long day working in some menial underpaid task. Though the ride was none to pleasant for me I thought I could endure and she probably deserved to sit, so I smiled broadly, thanked her, but gestured I was okay. The young people wouldn't have noticed that interaction. Had I really felt like I needed to sit, or had I been having a longer ride, I wouldn't have hesitated to accept her kind offer. The young people didn't appear to be the type I wanted to confront and they were very aware of my presence next to their seat. Had my ride been longer I probably would have kindly asked if I could sit a bit. Might have been interesting if I had done it anyway, but I didn't want a situation at that particular time, and I was alone.

It's terror, pure and simple. Doesn't excuse ageism in any of its forms one bit, but I have found most younger people -- especially those around 25-30 when they begin to get a glimmer of what's to come -- are so terrified of their own mortality that they consciously or subconsciously act to marginalize those of us over a certain age.

It has taken some time for society to catch up with the fact that people are living much longer.

For a time older people who lived in city environments away from children and grandchildren were going to warmer climes each winter with bumper stickers saying "I am using up my children's inheritance."

There didn't seem to be any reason for them to stay around. Their role as mentors and wise members of the tribe evidently was over.

I hope that when this depression hits everyone that we can come back to appreciating us older people once more and old people can find ways to interact with younger people.

As it is, first time parents are raising children alone without the experienced calmness of olders and old people are shed from society as a curse.

For myself, I am reaching out to the youngers in my family with frequent family gatherings throughout the year. I am sharing my story and my husband's story with not only the family but the world since we both published our memoirs.

In June I will appear on the Open Mike comedy stage here in Seattle as I need to hear laughter again since my husband died early in April.
I think I am the oldest standup in Seattle at age almost 89. Life isn't over yet, not by a long shot.

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