Human nature being what it is, we all have our prejudices. I don't mean the nakedly open hatred of those who would burn sacred books of others' religion. Or circulate a caricature of the president as a witch doctor. Or even public servants who want to eliminate programs that benefit elders and the disabled. Those people are easily exposed for what they are.
Today, I am talking about the rest of us and the much more subtle value judgments we make about people we don't even know, silently discounting them based, perhaps, on their taste in clothing, their accent or their weight.
Without enormous evidence of positive value in other respects, most of us prefer the well-dressed, the well-spoken and the skinny over others and that sometimes makes a difference in how we choose friends, for example, or how we vote. What is interesting about this is that all else being equal, we can be unaware that we make these distinctions.
(Although a negative can't be proved, I am convinced that if Sarah Palin looked like – oh, say, me – she would have disappeared from the national media on November 5, 2008.)
I have been reading, studying, thinking, writing and speaking out about aging and ageism for so long now that I had flattered myself into believing that this is one area of life where I am free of unconscious prejudice. As often happens, however, just when I'm feeling full of myself, something happens to knock me off my pins.
Let me tell you a story.
Last Friday, I stood on line at the supermarket pharmacy waiting to get my annual flu shot. The woman in front of me and I exchanged some polite words about the weather and I felt a little envy that she, who appeared to be five or ten years older than I (I'm 69), had a much thicker head of hair.
When she reached the counter, the pharmacist read through the form she handed over and then said, “Congratulations on your 98th birthday.”
NINETY-EIGHT!? Suddenly, I was unabashedly listening closely. There followed an informed discussion on her part, in as strong a voice as the 40-ish pharmacist, that this year's vaccine formula includes protection against the N1H1 virus.
After receiving her shot, the woman left the counter pushing a cart with as steady and firm a step as my own. Later, I saw her walking out of the parking lot carrying two bags of groceries.
Over the weekend, I gave a lot of thought to that small encounter and particularly to how shocked I was that a woman who is 29 years older than I, a person identified in medical literature as the oldest old, is as agile and mentally sharp as others who are a couple of generations younger.
Now it is true, as we have discussed here through the years, that the rate at which we age – that is, become less physically and, sometimes, less mentally able - is highly individual. Factors generally include health, genetics and plain, old dumb luck.
Nevertheless, as I thought about that woman, I became uncomfortable with how surprised I had been to see a straight-spined, 98-year-old jauntily walking off toward home with her groceries.
That discomfort arises, of course, from recognizing my prejudice – that upon hearing someone is 98, I expect them to be weak and frail, living in a nursing home or, at least, being waited on hand and foot by a relative.
But as my guess of her age, when we spoke, placed her at 20-odd years younger than she is, I further realized two other things:
• I have no ability to estimate age in the old, and
• There is no telling how many 90-somethings there are among us who are just taking care of business - buying groceries, using the ATM and standing on line for a flu shot like everyone else.
We are well indoctrinated to believe that the most aged are decrepit. But now I wonder, barring disease, ill health and, perhaps, self-fulfilling prophecy caused by that indoctrination, how many stealth oldest old we see every day.
Oh, how I wish I'd gone after that woman, introduced myself and gotten to know her.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Richard J. Klade: Ya Gotta Know When to Play 'Em