It's Not Old Eyes, It's Anyone's
GRAY MATTERS: Dr. Robert Butler

To the Keyboards, Elders

category_bug_ageism.gif Until Wednesday's post, it had been many months since either Crabby Old Lady or I had had a good rant about everyday, commonplace ageism. It felt so good - and is important enough - that I'm doing it again today.

In general, ageism is not taken seriously. In its most grievous forms - age discrimination in the workplace and in healthcare - it deprives elders of employment years before they are ready to retire and sometimes denies medical procedures that would improve and extend elders' lives – the latter of which Celia addressed in her comment on Wednesday.

Although we were discussing less serious forms of ageism, I wonder if all types are not equally debilitating in that they feed on and support one another making discrimination against elders acceptable. If elders are commonly slighted in the media, for example (which we are), certainly that makes it easier for an employer, when he or she is planning layoffs, to dump more gray-haired old people, no matter how experienced, than younger ones.

In hundreds of small ways each day, it is reinforced to everyone that youth is the gold standard of life and it is acceptable to treat old people as though they are not quite full citizens.

Elizabeth Rogers made an important point Wednesday about dignity – of which elders are mostly deprived:

“The only way we'll get through this aging thing with a scrap of dignity intact is to keep on giving 'em hell - and spending our money for goods and services where people look and talk TO, not at, us. We've earned the right to be treated decently - as long as we remember to be pleasant to deal with.”

Elizabeth's point is well taken, but I'm not so sure about that last part, “remember to be pleasant to deal with.” If someone has ignored me or treated me badly, I don't believe I have any obligation to “handle” them or treat them more nicely than they have behaved with me. Maybe it's the New Yorker in me.

A few years ago, I had been standing in the lengthy breakfast line at a deli counter in Greenwich Village for a long time. One of the clerks served the man in front of me and then let his eyes skip past me to the man behind me.

“Hey,” I said loudly enough for everyone in the shop to hear. “What am I, chopped liver?”

“I didn't see you,” said the clerk. “I'll get to you when I'm finished with this customer.”

“Just a damned minute,” I said. “I was here first. Let him wait his turn.”

It's not that it mattered if it took another couple of minutes for me to get my coffee and bagel. What matters is that I be treated the same as younger people. That I not be ignored because I am old. That I be accorded the same dignity as everyone else.

Margie's grandmother, I'm certain, would have agreed with me:

“Her retorts,” reported Margie in her comment, “which, depending on her mood, would sometimes escalate into 'I'm not deaf and dumb, you know!' and 'Do I look stupid to you?' I like to think that a few of those waitresses learned a thing or two about aging from my grandma.”

Doctafil made it clear to an ice cream clerk that she would not be ignored and Paula, in her comment, suggested:

“Speak up - early, often, and with a list of questions fired fast, like a slightly annoyed school principal.”

Hurray for everyone in these stories. In a culture that values youth above all else, elders will not be given the ordinary respect younger adults and even children receive unless we speak up each and every time we are ignored, made invisible and treated as though we are slightly incompetent.

If it takes some yelling or belligerence to get those people's attention – that's okay. There's an old joke about a guy who, to the horror of a friend, keeps whacking his mule in the head with a two-by-four. The punchline is, “First, I've got to get his attention.”

And sometimes, because ordinary, everyday, insulting ageism is so common, people need a virtual whack on the head to get the point.

If we don't speak up, we become complicit in our own disrespect. For the benefit of all elders and for our children who will be elders someday, each of us has an obligation to help set it right every time these things happen. Otherwise there is no chance it will stop. Or, as Nance puts it:

“This is the leading edge of a tsunami of elder-awareness. With a cohort the size of this one, I defy the country to remain as ignorant and prejudiced as they've been.

"To the keyboards, Comrades!”

EDITORIAL NOTE: Tune in here tomorrow for Saul Friedman's weekly Gray Matters column in which he writes about Dr. Robert N. Butler, the man who coined the word, ageism.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Guanxi


I believe that in our culture people worship youth basically because they fear death.

When you show up with gray hair you deliver the message of mortality. When you make eye contact, the instinct of the fearful is to fall into denial and look away.

The obstacle to be overcome is not rudeness or indifference so much as inarticulate fear. This, I think, is why the problem of ageism remains intractable

Knowing this, however, doesn't help you get your damn bagel when you're supposed to. It is necessary, and therefore right, to kick up as much of a ruckus as it takes to be treated decently.

According to the paper today, 9000 more baby boomers are turning into elders every day.

This is not really on subject, but I keep telling folks that everyone should work in a nursing home when they are in their teens like I did. I was a waitress in the dining area.

Having grown up knowing only one grandparent who died when I was 13, I really had no exposure to the elderly. If you don't have any exposure it is very easy to dismiss this segment of society all your life (until you become one). I found most of the residents so fascinating with wonderful stories to tell (when most folks left after a meal, some would still sit and chat and I would stop cleaning tables and sit with them for a while). I became an elder advocate during and after working at the home and never thought of elders as a group to be dismissed.

That story of the bagel line fascinates me. My response would have been (has been) different -- but I think I need to ponder whether perhaps your tack would be better for me and us all.

In that situation, I would probably have turned my wrath on the guy who was getting served first -- "Hey -- there's a line here!!" This would have have 1) probably enlisted him in making me next unless he was a completely jerk -- "oh, sorry, you were first..." and 2) enlisted many of the other people in line because everyone hates a line crasher (except when we are the line crashers.) Very effective.

But my approach, though utilitarian -- it gets me the bagel quickly -- does NOT confront the ageism of the clerk which you identify as the source of the insult. Especially, my tack does not confront the blithe obliviousness of some youth.

How to highlight the ageism, get the bagel, AND get the other people in line on our side? There's some mixture of assertiveness and respect for all involved that raises the behavioral standard for all -- how do we find that?

Yay, Crabby Lady! I'm for more conversation on ageism! Loved hearing about your classic use of the chopped liver comment. Thank you!

By exploring it together, we can find some creative, awakening responses. I had fun writing a scenario about responding to common ageist comments in my play.

Like "may I help you, young lady?"
Characters respond variously. These responses are not necessarily realistic, but they jog us into fresh attitudes towards responding at all.
1. Who you calling a young lady. Itching for a duel are you pardner?
2. I am not a young lady. I am an old man. Wake up and smell the coffee and drop the young lady and old man business. Thanks for respecting my age.
3. Are you having a junior moment? I am not a young lady.

And another of my favorite, when a character in a high-pitched artificial elderspeak kind of voice asks, "How are we doing today, Shirley?" the answer is, Let's see I hear you saying we. Are you suggesting I have a multiple personality or are you just being condescending?

Having been taught by our mothers to be subservient, and the magazines of our day stressing the importance of being a good mother to our children, it is no wonder we of the old stand aside.
When it happens, and fortunately it does not happen often, that I am overlooked, using my 'mother's' voice I say, "Excuse me" ...when/if I am still pointedly ignored, I raise my voice just a bit, and say, "You don't have my permission to be disrespectful."

My favorite gripe is for the waiter or 5the person who seats you, saying to me when I seek a table, "Just one?" "well," I reply, "If you have someone nice to keep me company." "Oh," he/she says. Then I get a postage-stamp size table snd wait, wait. The thing to do is get up and pretend you're walking out.Or demand a larger table.Then, if you wish leave a tip of exactly ten percent.

"Just One?
"Yes", I say, "I escaped."

Q.Just one?
A.Yes, I left my multiple personalities at home.

Q.Just one?
A. Attitude is everything, whether you're serving one or 15.

I missed Wednesday's post. It was a day I was having lunch with the friend who takes me grocery shopping and I was too busy to read any posts.

Having just read it and the comments I have one thing to add to this discussion. (Maybe more than one ;-))

There are several assisted living complexes in my area and when I shop and see one of their vans outside I shudder because I know getting through the aisles in the store's electric cart is going to be a nightmare. Why? Because the elders have a feeling of entitlement and act like they are the only ones in the store. They stop their carts in the middle of the aisles, then block the rest of the aisle with their body as they leisurely study the contents of each can and slowly make a decision on what to buy. They cut in front of you because they are walking while you ride. You get the picture. They are rude and thoughless. It is the younger people that help me reach something off of a high shelf.

My point is, we have an obligation to deserve respect. It is is a two way street. If we want people to be nice to us we have to set the stage. Then if they still ignore us, give them bloody hell.

Older people don't react as fast, they lose peripheral vision, they read slower, their eyes, even with glasses, don't focus as quickly, they often can't move their heads to the side easily - they don't hear well - that might explain the standing in the aisle, the slower decision making, the fact they don't move fast enough to get out of the way. Rudeness is often in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps your cart gets the same reaction from others.

We all need to respect others abilities. And, polite responses, if assertive also, can be very effective in being respected and noticed.

"Are you having a junior moment?"

Ha! I love it! Just throw that condescending drivel right back! I'm going to start using that phrase whenever I can...maybe give a few people some food for thought.

And yes, we do need to speak up. We are, day by day, becoming an army. We'll need to wade right into the fray.

Couldn't stay away for long. Wanted to read all these comments again.

Laughed my head off!!!


To the Keyboards, Elders

Nu nu nu nah, nu nu nu nah, Elders!

So, are we taking out the Eldermobile tonight? ;)

But seriously, folks. My mother's answer when asked, "Just One?"

Mom: "One what?"
Mom: "Yes, just one table."

You guys are all so funny. This has been great to read all day.

Ah, yes, the NY attitude must've gone over like a lead balloon in Maine. I wonder how you're doing in Oregon with it.

Our generation stopped a war. We ought to be able to change some attitudes, don't you think?

I totally agree with all that's been said about the AARP stuff etc. But at the risk of being shouted down I want to sound a word of caution as regards all these examples of finding ourselves treated as invisible. Firstly, not every bit of apparent rudeness directed at an elder is because they are old, any more than every bit of injustice is based on skin color or gender. For example, the 'ice cream story' (one of the comments in Wednesday's post) was, to my mind, more of an illustration of the crazy, obsessive hyper-speediness that today's young people are so prone to than an illustration of agism per se.
Secondly, let's look at whether, because of all the cultural conditioning that we so deplore, we are unconsciously seeing our own, old selves as invisible and unimportant. No, don't scoff. These things can be subtle. Thirty years ago, when my morning commute took me against the stream of people coming into the city, I did some experiments. When I deliberately held an image of myself as small, invisible and unimportant, I had trouble getting through the crowd and often got bumped into. When I visualized myself as large, important and brightly colored, the stream of people coming towards me always parted like the Red Sea. I took pains to ensure that I was making no conscious change to my posture or facial expression. I repeated this experiment many, many times, always with the same results. It was fascinating.
So as well as facing down genuine agism wherever we encounter it, let's also make very sure that at some deep, subtle level we are not also buying into it ourselves.

I love this conversation - very entertaining! I would add one more little gripe -- I hate being called "honey" or "Sweetie" which I was never called when I was young. I want to retort: "I'm not your Honey or your Sweetie, my dear. In fact, I don't think we've met. You may call me Mrs. Cochran if you like - and I'll call you Honey. Ok?"

In the Op Ed piece in the Denver Post "Don't Call Them Sweetie"
Debbie Reslock identified a form of address called "elderspeak". We all are familiar with this kind of communication. The thing that really struck me in her article was the report that research shows elderspeak and associated behaviors actually shorten the lives of those who are consistently treated this way.

I agree with most of the comments on the general topic of ageism and a need to fight the invisibility of the aged. However,I have to say that I don't mind, as I did when younger, being called pet names, and offered help. Dammit, I NEED their help, and am delighted when sweet young men give me their arm and offer to carry my luggage, when strangers offer to fill my gas tank, young girls come up to say they want to be like me when they are my age,and all ages are more apt to talk with me than when I was younger--I'm much freer with speaking up to strangers, with friendly comments or jokes, and I'm apt to call them pet names, too. So I'm suggesting a 3rd alternative: not submission, not too much assertiveness, but giving them an image of an old person who is fun and approachable, a bit outrageous, and NOT invisible. They'll remember and with luck the positive image will attach itself to the whole species.

Oops, Ronni, I fear that my statement about older people being pleasant to deal with might have been badly phrased and thus subject to misinterpretation. I didn't mean to imply that we should put up with poor service, unduly long waits or lack of courtesy if it's apparent that we're being ignored or badly treated simply because we're older. Of course, this brings up the whole issue of indifferent service, but that's a huge subject on its own.

I won't accept elderspeak or being called Sweetie, Dearie or Honey by salesclerks or any other strangers. Most younger folks seem to sense that about me because it doesn't happen very often. I do get ignored in stores occasionally, and that's when I'll make the decision to speak up--or walk out.

I wrote a polite but firm letter of protest a few years ago to the store manager of a large retailer. I'd experienced some very blatant ageism on the part of a 30-something checker. I stated that, although I was a loyal customer of many years, I would be taking my business elsewhere. Not only did I receive a prompt letter of apology, including the store's commitment to serving all their customers equally, but a generous gift certificate. I decided to continue shopping there, initially on a trial basis, and for the most part, I've been treated well--that's what's important.

Priceless comments...Loved'em

"Honey," and "Sweetie," annoy me, too, except people from some parts of the country routinely use them for all ages and the use of those words is very prevalent in those States. I've noticed a number of elders receiving nursing care often encourage their aides to use such language, sometimes "Mama" (a respectful term in other selected countries) rather than more formal addresses.

In addition to this attitude and demand equality, I think it's important to teach our children how important it is to respect their elders and to be a person that youth can look up to and learn from.

I would like to respond to Nan who made a good point on why elders in grocery stores are sometimes rude, I know that elders take longer, being an 85 year old woman, but I am thoughtful and keep my scooter (I don't push a cart due to the fact that standing too long hurts me) as close to the right as possible. I don't hear well either, but I assume that there might be someone behind me who needs my space. I try to be considerate of others and I still do not think there is any excuse for being inconsiderate.

Incidentally, it is always a young person who offers to help me. Some elders glare at me if I smile at them. Is there any excuse for that?

My point is, we, as elders, must do our part to get respect by being friendly and thoughtful.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)