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