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Rethinking Ageism

There has been a surge recently in the number of print media stories about ageism. Two I've seen are important.

In November, Joseph F. Coughlin, who is founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab, noted in Time magazine that old people even have their own town in Florida, The Villages. (Not that similar places don't exist elsewhere.)

At The Villages, there are a 157,000 residents age 55 and older who have developed their own culture, norms and lifestyle, says Coughlin, and he sees a “troubling possible future” where old and young segregate themselves from one another:

”The way this could happen is simple,” he writes. “Society fails to recognize the needs, desires and aspirations of older people, treating them as invisible — or, worse, as a problem to be solved.

“We continue to write a story of old age that retires people away from everyone else, rather than finding ways to engage them, to activate their talents. In response, it’s only natural that older people would choose to cloister themselves away.”

Actually, we – meaning young and old - are way ahead of Coughlin. Many of the majority of elders who do not live in Villages-style communities find other ways to isolate themselves from younger generations. And if they won't do it themselves, those younger people will do it for them.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Tad Friend looked into the intractable endurance of ageism quoting, at one point, four psychologists who wrote the book, Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice against Older Persons.

”[...they] point out that many people preserve themselves from 'death thought accessibility' by shunning 'senior citizen centers, bingo parlors, nursing homes, golf courses, Florida, and Rolling Stones concerts.'

“The authors dryly conclude,” notes Friend, 'Another way to avoid older adults is to keep them out of the workplace.'”

No kidding. A lot of us on this blog who had every intention of working longer know all about that how that works, and Friend takes Silicon Valley to task for the tech industry's patently ageist hiring practices.

As it turns out too, according to Friend, the widespread belief that Eastern cultures treat their elders with more kindness, care and understanding than our Western culture does just isn't so:

”A meta-analysis by the academics Michael S. North and Susan T. Fiske reveals that Eastern societies actually have more negative attitudes toward the elderly that Western ones do...”

And further, say North and Fiske, efforts to make old people more understandable to the young,

”'...have yielded mixed results at best.' Having students simulate the experience of being old by donning weighted suits and vision-inhibiting goggles, or exposing them to 'intergenerational contact' – actual old people – doesn't lead to kumbaya moments.

“'Such approaches do not appear to incite a long-term desire among the young for interactions with elders,' they regretfully conclude, 'and contact can backfire if older adults are particularly impaired.'”

It doesn't help that, as Friend writes, we tend to caricature elders into only two categories: "raddled wretches and cuddly Yodas", denying them full, rounded humanity as the young are automatically granted.

As Friend notes throughout his piece, it is fear of death that drives ageism which is what probably makes ageism unavoidable.

”If ageism is hardwired, how can we reprogram ourselves? Greenberg and Co. suggest three ways:

⚫ Having the elderly live among us and fostering respect for them
⚫ Bolstering self-esteem throughout the culture to diminish the terror of aging
⚫ Calmly accepting our inevitable deaths.

“They note, however, that 'all these directions for improvement are pie in the sky, particularly when we think of them at a society-wide or global level of change.' So ageism is probably inevitable 'in this potentially lonely and horrifying universe.'”

Or, from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker:

”The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

Personally and however fearful it may be, I'm working hard to live every moment I have left to its fullest.


I’ve always admired the way the Amish live all ages together. There are always babies, teens, and elders all together.

"...I'm working hard to live every moment I have left to its fullest." I applaud your efforts and your successes!
"...Coughlin [ ] sees a “troubling possible future” where old and young segregate themselves from one another." This happens with all sorts of things that divide people - politics, socio-economic status, etc. That is the genius of the public schools system that our fore-founders envisioned. If we all attend public schools, together, we have the opportunity to interact and learn from people who are not "just like" us.
I'm not sure why; but, my husband, who has started attending a weekly physics seminar at the local university remarks on two things on campus: 1) the mixing of various apparent nationalities and ethnicities and 2) the respect shown us elders. For anyone who wishes to "shake up" their isolationism, I highly recommend getting involved in institutions that provide a mix of ages/nationalities/etc. It's a breath of fresh air for one who may otherwise be out there in the suburbs seeing, only, "just like" people.

P.S. I failed to make clear that I have attended the seminars for at least the past 10 years, so the faculty and I have an easy relationship. There is no accounting for the ease with which the youngsters interact with us - well - other than one graduate student, each year, who takes advantage of a tiny scholarship that we provide.

I don't think we're 'hardwired', in the sense of biologically determined, for ageism. Look at grandchildren, and as you note, many young people. However, it is the "master cultural narrative" of the society that demeans aging and older persons. We can stop contributing to that by ceasing to demean our own aging and being kind to our future selves.

I'm with Jim on this. The only way I'm going to take on one more issue is from an internal place. The master cultural narrative, is indeed very male, and demeans almost everything that is about living with humanity. The earth, women, old people, peace. Along with claiming my right to be old and a woman, I claim my right to, in this final stage, engender as much peace in my life as possible. If others see that as isolation, so be it. As an artist I've always been somewhat sheltered, and know that solitude is rich, not the poor broth that so many assume. Many cultures greatly respect old age. In China, people were disappointed that my friend's mother was "only" 69. Let's all TALK about being OLD! If we are afraid to be old, others will assume that direction. It's hard yes, but there's much beauty......it's a time to be peaceful, to grow spiritually, to truly value ourselves, whatever be our state.

Although it may not be possible for everyone, I have structured a wonderful intergenerational life style by being a mentor for younger generations in a subject I know a lot about, and that they want to learn: traditional folk music and folklore. I live with other seniors in senior housing, but I socialize with people my kids' ages, for the most part, which is such a blessing now that I no longer drive--they take me everywhere, and THEY won't have to give up driving during MY lifetime! Perhaps one could make it happen through a church contact, or a community college's classes for non-students.

The world, and the U.S. in particular, has always been a youth oriented society. Believe me. I would prefer to live among a variety of people of every age but I know that I will not be accepted as an equal. The pre-conceived notions that people have about old people, bolstered by a daily bombardment of commercials, TV shows, music, and pop culture all geared to a younger audience, have made it almost impossible for seniors to "fit in."

There are three towns in Arizona that I am aware of that deliberately isolate the elders by advertising them as retirement communities and restricting the age limit of people who can buy houses there. How much more isolated can you get?

Unfortunately, when I bought my town house I was not aware of the fact that the complex was inhabited, for the most part, by elders. The only time I hear the happy voices of children at play is when a grandmother near me has to care for her grandchildren.

Elders isolate themselves by choice and they can become very ingrown. I think it is sometimes forced on us by the limitations of our bodies. Buying a town house or a condo is a necessity because we can no longer rake lawns or keep a swimming pool maintained. Because that is the motivation for moving into a town house, it is desired by one age group to the exclusion of young families.

I don't know any answers except to say, that if you want to mix with children and young adults find an outside place to volunteer where you can get the desired goal of mixing with all age groups.

I assume most over-55 individuals choose to live in Villages-style communities. There's a wonderful one not far from here that I would love to move to if I could afford it. Beautiful housing, services I might need or at least enjoy having at some point, neighbors my age that I might actually make friends with (I'm a terrible introvert, but might at least get to know a neighbor or two if we had something in common). Oh, and someone else to worry about caring for the yard, external maintenanxe, etc. And likely more peace and quiet than where I am now. It's not like the folks in age-restricted communities are sent there against their wishes and locked up away from the general population.

I'm not about to take on any more issues at this point either. Being old is what it is. On balance, however, when one considers many of today's problems caused by people--young and old--I prefer cats!

I don't subscribe to the ideas that old people need to move to a retirement community or to "age-proof" their house or to quit working.

My husband and I did have our house remodeled fairly recently, but the impetus was to add a second bathroom since the two of us drink a lot of coffee at home and at the local Starbucks. (We live in Seattle.)

Another reason for the remodel was to enlarge my husband's home office where he works on a government contract in a field he's been involved in for decades.

Finally, both of us are active in an advanced Toastmasters International Club. I'm scheduled to give a speech in the club early in January.

I like Lyn Burnstine's comment about mentoring younger people. I know a couple of retirees around my town who mentor young people trying to get their GEDs or to learn ESL. They get a lot out of it. It takes a bit of effort to resist isolating oneself from younger people but if we wait for them to stop being ageist we might have a long wait.

Each age has its worries. Consider your early 30's - - no money, no time, iffy prospects, right? We 'old people' (ya' mean we're not?) have our worries. Our health, Outliving our money, and being socially disregarded are three of them. I'm with Annie (above), who challenges us with her words, "takes a bit of effort to resist isolating oneself". Volunteer, join something - - for classes, workout, play (all kinds). And especially, use that bit of effort to flash everybody a grin and a "Hi". You'll be amazed at how the young ones will respond!

Hi Ronni, this is not exactly on your subject today, but something I've been noticing is the "what shall we do about mother?" tone and language in advertisements for senior housing or health assistance. I have never heard once--or read--an ad targeted at seniors suggesting they themselves get involved in considering lifestyle changes or living arrangements! As in, "are you thinking about giving up yard work?" or "would you like someone to do the cooking for you?" This can only be the case because it is assumed seniors need to be taken care of like children. Infuriating!

Last month I visited an old friend in Austin, TX. We grew up together in San Antonio in the 1950's-60's, until my family moved back to Illinois in 1966. One of the places I was excited to visit while there, is called the Community First! Village. This project was created by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a faith-based, primarily volunteer operated, program which reaches out to the homeless and helps provide food, clothing, and other needs. The Village program now goes well beyond that, and provides housing and almost anything anyone could need, in a beautiful 27 acre setting just outside east Austin. I had read a little about it before my visit, but it was so much more than I had imagined.

The last day of my trip, there was a front page article in the largest Austin newspaper announcing that the the Village is expanding to another 24 acres adjacent to the existing site. They have a ten year plan to double the number of homes. What I really love about this program, besides everything, is that there are no age restrictions. While it is designed primarily to provide housing and community to formerly chronically homeless individuals, they have created some opportunities for families, including some with children, who had other housing options, but have chosen to live there as part of a commitment to a "mixed-everything" community.

This place reminds me of what I had visualized a few years ago while reading Dr. Bill Thomas's book, Tribes of Eden. The Community First! Village is about as green as it can get, they raise goats and chickens, have a blacksmithing/forge facility, big organic garden where anyone can have space. gorgeous communal kitchens and so much more. You can even have your ashes interred in a columbarium there if you have no other plan, and a handful of people have so far.

They love to give tours, so if you're ever in the area, check this place out! You can also learn a lot more about it, and see pictures, on-line by googling Mobile Loaves & Fishes, or Community First! Village. It is truly remarkable and is one of the most hope-restoring things I've experienced in a while.

I have a difficult time accepting the premise or conclusion that “...fear of death...” is what drives ageism. I’m sure that’s true for some people, but I think it’s a mistake to believe that’s a predominant cause of older people moving into isolating like groups. I think that’s an over-simplification and that the cause of ageism is far more complex with many factors. The $$$ factor comes into play often where job loss is concerned. Also, some employers think younger people or more maleable to the company culture, have fewer pre-conceived ideas.

I base this on ageism victim family members plus my own attitude toward life and death (absent the kind of fear indicated). This is just my experience as shared by many people of all ages that I’ve encountered in my decades of living. Just one example is one age 55 and older community a family member moved to over forty years ago where she lived until her death. It was not her first choice as she preferred being with a variety of ages, including younger folks. But this location was more compatible with her limited budget.

Also, she and others talked of difficulty finding locations where even adults much younger than them experienced lack of consideration for others individual rights by the changed social mores in the past fifty years for so many. Many welcomed not being subjected to younger people who seemed not to recognize boundaries— property, personal — of others whether in activities, sound levels, etc. They also thought it easier to meet new contemporaries, especially as newcomers, to develop friends, in these age designated settings whether mobile home park or other type older community.

But these are just a few influencing factors I’ve heard expressed that immediately come to mind. Researchers have to zero in on one factor for their hypotheses and sometimes may not attend adequately to others for many reasons, I think.

Excellent conversation! I do believe fear of death plays a part in ageism, economic limitations, and the fact that most discussions on aging do not include the concept of age related psycho/social/spiritual tasks that are a necessary part of all ages. I lived in 'professions,/grad student housing when I first moved to a college town because I like young people too. It was a nightmare. A year ago I moved into a new sr. apartment complex and while it took time to adjust my thinking around this, it's wonderful. Our age range is early 60s - late 80s and it's a unique, wonderful community. From our 60s on we have the work of wrapping up our lives and by insisting we continue in the work/professionsal world we avoid the real work of our older years. Of course this is unique to each of us. I was able to work until 66, now at 70 I'm relieved to not have the distraction of a job to deal with. At our ages our job is to create our work; mentoring, meditation, self-nurturing, friendship that often involves seeing others through death, integration/healing our wounds, letting go, etc. If we're fortunate enough to afford this freedom, I for one, am going to savor it. I live on a limited budget and know many who cannot afford to use this time of life for what it's meant to be... part of my 'work' is to support them.

12/12/17 Heard on NPR today: 'Village Movement' Allows Elderly To Age In Their Homes

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