ELDER MUSIC: Songs within Songs
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Old Obama in Malaysia

Even many old people deny it exists but ageism is a serious problem. In just one manifestation of its impact, age discrimination in the workplace begins as early as age 40 and picks up speed from there.

Often, when workers many years younger than retirement age are laid off, they never work again in their field. They end up in low paying jobs unrelated to their area of expertise and some never find another job at all. Here are the common results of those events:

They lose their homes because they can no longer afford the mortgage.

The kids are on their own to pay for college.

They can no longer afford health coverage.

Stress ends marriages.

Retirement savings are emptied for living expenses.

In what should have been their highest-earning years paying off the mortgage, building up Social Security and other retirement funds, they are instead forced to make much lower contributions (if they can do that at all), dramatically cutting their income for the rest of their lives.

As a result, many who were previously solid members of the middle class are consigned to an old age of poverty that would not have happened if the culture had allowed them to work a normal span of time.

Ageism is the last acceptable prejudice. Even with the common tragedies as detailed above, derogatory references and jokes about old age are easy laugh-getters and exist in all media – movies, television, internet, books, magazines, newspapers along with everyday conversation.

It is so ubiquitous that many people don't even notice the nasty jokes or the knee-jerk denials of age so casually tossed off and when it is pointed out to them, they think it's okay because it's always been that way.

Don't be so sensitive, people say – even old people – when anyone (like me) points out the problem. Just ignore them, they tell me never seeing beyond themselves the harm that is done to all old people by the constant use of derogatory language.

Last Friday during his trip to Asia, President Barack Obama held a town hall meeting with the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative in Malaysia. During the question-and-answer period, a student began thusly: “Since you are ageing toward a very senior life...”

You don't need to be told this caused a lot of laughter in the room. Obama got off a one-liner or two with the kid about his gray hair and mugged for the audience about being insulted. Finally, the young man finished his question:

”What do you want to see from young people like us in the future when you are old?”

Watch now how our president who, at age 54, is eligible for 50-plus discounts and retirement communities, handles that:

There he is, the leader of the free world at his charming best. Obama doesn't get accused of being smooth for nothin' and he's hard to resist.

But he uses his gift, in this case, to perpetuate one of our worst stereotypes (worst because so many refuse to believe it exists at all): that there's nothing good about being old and that it's an insult to be truthful about it. Then he uses the young man's honesty to take some friendly-sounding umbrage.

Friendly-sounding, but making it clear that he doesn't want to be tagged as old.

What chance do old people have to gain any respect if even the president disparages their appearance.

As the video ends abruptly, I don't know if Obama goes on to address the student's serious and important question but I suspect he does – it's in his nature. Whatever he says, however, the only part that was broadcast around the world on television and made any impact was his disdain and disrespect for old age.

The town hall was 90 minutes long and if you are up for it (I was not) you can see the whole thing here.

Comments

Sometimes the best way to deal with being stereotyped is to make fun of one self. The man is the president of the most powerful nation on earth. I don't think he has to justify himself to anyone. It's important to notice that the young Malaysian audience was laughing with him, not at him.

I'm with Bruce once again! Let's cut Mr. Obama some slack. He's got a lot on his plate other than stereotypes of elders & aging. Let's not forget that he has a MIL living with him who altho' I'm sure she's growing older well, she's still getting older before his eyes which is no doubt a daily reminder. Dee

Suppose the young Malaysian's question had been about President Obama being black. And suppose the president had answered in a similar vein: "The first thing I want from people is to stop calling me black! ...You hurt my feelings." Even keeping the light, joking tone, he would be endorsing an unchallenged assumption that being black is bad and being called black is an insult.

I agree with Ronni on this one. Perhaps it's understandable that the president has too much on his mind to be aware when he's accepted the influence of our agist culture, but it's still unfortunate.

Played the video three times to discover where President Obama showed disrespect for elders. Haven't seen it yet. Simply seems like some good fun.

I found the section around 42.39 if anyone wants to watch his response. While he didn't point out positives of being old, his speech was focused on what the young might attend to. With regards to that, is was (I think) more of a fallback to generalized speech-making, "Dream, dream big," and "Work hard to attain them," etc. The speech was directed toward the young and what they best do with their lives.

So I felt he didn't address the question, and I think he likely has more meaningful and deeper thoughts on this. It was a political venue, in a foreign country, with its own cultural ideals. He knows how to put the people in the palm of his hand.

Perhaps a problem with that question for many in this country is because we have no place for elders, no clear definitive regard for their gifts, which are not economically based, and those reflect the times and struggles in which we live. We are the undefined. So the fallback is appearance, frailty, loss, etc.

Until elder value is elevated by the culture, which includes the older population itself (which unfortunately many are too busy trying to be/appear young), I doubt there's much that will change in the minds of many. Though ya never know.

Might be interesting to know how we would answer that question, which I thought was very good.

I figured out some time ago that the great divide in America is between human values and market values, and that we are so marinated in market values that we have to fight ceaselessly to recall that there even ARE other ways to look at the world, and that concepts of value need not be determined by bankroll.

Essentially, the consumerist model of a society evaluates people as valuable based on the amount that they consume, either presently or potential future consumption -- that is why America loves young people so much, and disdains precisely those people who are most likely to realize that how much stuff you have is a pretty poor guide to how happy you will be, or how ready you will be to face the great mystery of "What's next?"

We've built a society based on atomizing people into the tiniest possible individual units, the better to sell more crap to them -- the more singles living alone there are, the more kitchens, and more TVs, the more cars, the more lawnmowers, the more houses -- all unquestionable goods in our thinking. We convert even the most fundamental human activities -- caring for children and elders in decline -- into market activities, and we disdain those who decline to participate in helping goose GDP by insisting on doing for themselves what some company would like to do for them, at a profit.

Ageism really flowered in the early 20th Century with the advent of modern consumerist mass media, advertiser supported. There was a concerted effort to undo the traditional American values (thrift and self-sufficiency, especially) to promote the new consumer model of buying goods on credit and chasing planned obsolescence. Old people are simply not as good as consumers as young ones -- they have a nasty tendency to see through the BS and realize that what the huckster is selling is nonsense.

When the consumer economy finishes the collapse now underway, you are going to see a resurgence in respect for those elders who have refused to embrace the Madison Avenue promoted model of "Elder Teens" and who have remained connected to and interdependent with younger folks. In the end, people are only valuable to the extent they are valuable to others -- there is no inherent value to the hermit. Today, we only measure value in dollars. In the not-too-far future, we will be back to measuring value in terms of that look more like what we would call wisdom and experience.

I don't think it was much of a question. It would have been hard to give more than a generalized answer that had little actual meaning. Honestly, I don't think Pres Obama is old. I do accept the newer definition of middle age which reflects a longer life for many of us. I think he was riffing a bit while he thought about how to answer, but he probably was taken a bit aback by the age question. Remember when he was considered young and untried?

His reaction was honest--he doesn't consider himself old. How many of us felt old at that age? I certainly didn't.


John Gear, I hope you are right. One point on which we do not agree: I'm a lifelong introvert. I believe that a hermit--which is an introvert taken to the extreme--is not completely without value. Anyway, in the real world "old" does not equate with much of anything positive. Although I enjoy Jimmy Fallon's monologs, he makes far too many so-called jokes targeting older people while trying to act like a kid in his 20s, although he is 40 and a father. Soon he will be 50, then 60. . .and so it goes.

I guess I was fortunate in that I was "allowed" to work in my field until last year. I'll be 79 in January and wasn't ready to retire, but that's another story. It makes NO sense to push productive, creative, experienced, dependable, diligent workers out the door in middle age or even before. Not only does it hurt individuals and families, the marketers need to realize that older people with time AND money could be a huge boost to their bottom line. We may not buy as much as we once did, and I agree that people should not be judged on how much "stuff" they have, but we're probably got going to convert our capitalist economy any time soon.

Since I've been reading Ronnies blog I, myself, have become much more aware of ageism. I volunteered for usher duty last year for a local community theatre and the play was full of stereotype old people doing stereotype old things-and their adult children were only in their 20's which would have made these 'old people' in their 40's - 50's at most, yet the 'old folk' walked and talked like stereotypical 80 year olds..so unrealistic. But no one else saw it..when I tried to point out the stereotypes I was looked at the same way I was back in the days of civil rights marches..what a trip in the flashback machine that was.

Obama simply does not see himself as 'stereotypically old' nor is he. At 54 I was climbing telephone poles daily for a living..I never thought I'd get any older then.

These teens-20 year olds aren't in the space, either by culture or age to understand aging, nor was this forum one where President Obama should have tried to change their view on aging. Had he made an issue either way the news cycle would have become about "Obama denies aging" and even "Obama denies dying hair" Media spin would have trivialized an important issue.

Far better for the President to address aging in a forum on aging-and I think he should.

Bruce, John and Elizabeth.

Great comments.

Frailty, an over-cautious or shuffling gait, and an appearance of poor health are the indicators of 'old' in my mind, and I'm not eager to develop those. I actually dislike 'elderly' more than 'old', because it specifically calls to mind someone who is failing.

I didn't see any denigration of being old in Obama's response. The question was poorly phrased, from a kid who was probably nervous and speaks English as a second language.
Nothing wrong with saying you're not old when you're not old.

To those kids, he is definitely old.

It's really hard for me to think of anyone in their 50's as being old. I was there 40 years ago and if I live another 10 years it would have been the mid-point of my life. I certainly didn't feel old then and was insulted to be offered discounts for being 'old'.

Was it Madison Avenue that decided the age when we became old was 50? Perhaps "Senior Discounts" started the idea that being 50 years of age was old. It's really ridiculous.

I never thought that jokes about the elderly were a form of ageism until Ronni pointed that out in one of her posts. They do help create a stereotype of an elderly elder. (Elderly is a description of frailty, but the word elder is a description of an old person.) Those jokes are always an exaggeration of some of the real problems of the aged. That's what all humor is. I am not offended by them because I have always been able to laugh at myself, but I get Ronni's point. So I agree with Bruce on that.

I think Melanie made an excellent point when she equated being black to being old. Put in that context it is obvious that the President's comment helped to reinforce ageism.

I was on a kick a few years ago to address ageism within "my" community (visual arts). I was (and still am) irritated that a Gallery in Portland chose the words "Geezer Gallery" for their name. Nice that they aim to show the work of elders, not so nice (in my opinion) to use a derogatory name to do it. I made some noise about this and I was treated like I was a screwball to take issue with it. The Geezer Gallery gets some sort of funding (which irritates me even more) but I have indeed given up trying to point out how blatantly ageist that name is. ("Oh, it's just fun...and you are too sensitive")! The Gray Panthers was a great name. Where are they now? The Gray Panthers website is down.

Celeste, I'm not surprised you ran into resistance about the Geezer Gallery's name. An art gallery is a business. Once a business has registered, and has opened, and has started to establish itself, it is a really big deal to change its name.

The owners probably thought long and hard before picking the name. I bet what they liked about it was 1) the snappy alliteration and 2) the lack of sentimentality.

What would you want them to use instead? There are lots of different words for old men and old women -- the ones for old women are generally even more derogatory. "Geezer" is at least relatively mild.

"Gray Panther Gallery" would've been good if they'd wanted the political-radical associations. Chances are most of the artists they wanted to attract in your area wouldn't have liked it. "Gray Power Gallery"... I think there's a big auto insurance company that might have objected.

No, you weren't being a screwball. You weren't being too sensitive. The English language just doesn't always contain a perfect word that meets all requirements.

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