I’ve been noticing that I’m getting subtly annoyed at my friends and close relations who are in my age group. They have not changed their interaction styles. They still have all of the virtues that have made them so precious to me. So……what could it be? The fact is, this change resides in me! Witnessing their induction into the rank of “senior,” I am exercising my implicit bias: ageism. For the record, implicit bias is an unconscious attitude or stereotype which might affect your actions, but it may not align with what you say or believe.
Unconsciously in my group, I’ve noticed a physical slowing down and some extra wrinkles, gray hairs and a few extra pounds. Most disturbing to me is the “word finding” issue, which has become an art form in some of our conversations. “What’s the name of that… (fill in the blank with any proper noun).
Here’s how mean I’ve become. After meeting a friend with mobility issues in the winter, I haven’t been in touch since, because she said she couldn’t walk to an interesting shop about three blocks away, the main reason we were getting together. In another example, after witnessing some significant behavior changes because of a medication issue, I began worrying that I was losing my very dear friend, the one who knows me best and shares the longest history with me. Finally, on a recent historical tour which involved climbing a spiral stair case, I found myself predicting which senior members of my group wouldn’t be able to make it upstairs. I had heard of the concept of “implicit bias” when it comes to race, but ageism took me by surprise.
The nasty “isms”
Ageism is one of the seven “isms” identified by Suzanne Pharr, a social justice activist and political strategist. The other six include: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, Anti-Semitism, and heterosexism. All of these lovely “isms” imply negative prejudgment to maintain control and power. Luckily, all are changeable, but that requires lots of effort.
You can color your hair, but you cannot hide
You might be surprised to learn, that human beings subconsciously and immediately
identify others by race, gender, and age. If you are wondering why everyone is treating you as if you were old, people can tell just by looking at you, even if you feel 30. When you and others have a“yikes” moment when you see someone very old, it is a primitive fear and anxiety response.
Even in the middle of doing research for this essay, I was absolutely shocked at myself for having such a biased reaction at a restaurant while seated next to a group of twelve very elderly friends. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink found a similar negative, unconscious reaction to people of color. Although Gladwell is black, even he came out preferring Caucasians on the Implicit Association Test. Ageism is very similar. Unexpectedly, members of the out group have the same prejudices.
Does this bias exist in other cultures? At this time in human evolution, longevity is the hallmark of human progress. We should all be celebrating seniors. There must be some place in the world where this is true. Certainly, Eastern cultures influenced by the Confucian values of filial piety and the respect and care of elders are not part of this ageist insanity. Unfortunately, although the incidence is somewhat lower, the arrow is moving in the wrong direction.
Even seniors are guilty of ageism
Ageism involves the stereotype and prejudice against people based on age. If you are wondering how a senior can be ageist, there are many causes. You know all about the new resident of a continuing care facility who had to be dragged there because she was not “old” like the rest of the people. Mainly, it’s a prejudice against the future self.
It is quite shocking, when one retires, to all of a sudden, belong to a group of people
closest to the end of the life span. Most people do not feel comfortable contemplating their own mortality. Society’s defense strategies include avoiding, rejecting and segregating the elderly.
At the most fundamental level, humans have a projective disgust for their own “animality:” decay, weakness and vulnerability. Wrinkles, drooping skin and a slow gate are not cheerful reminders that we will all die someday.
The ”young” are also complicit
Sometimes, ageism is based on faulty theories which are favored by the young: succession, consumption and identity. These ideas include notions that older people have had their turn, and now it is time for the young to prevail. An example would be the idea that older workers should retire to give young people achance. Valuable resources should not be wasted on the old, who will be dying soon anyway. This idea is well known in healthcare controversies, and might have played out in nursing homes during the pandemic. Finally, many would buy into the idea of seniors acting their age. Many are quick to chastise someone who dresses or acts “too young.”
I found it quite shocking that the older one is, the more she has been conditioned to
ageism. This process began early in childhood with the ugly crones in fairy tales. Rampant consumerism is the next culprit. There is no room at the inn, under any circumstances, if one isn’t vigorous and vital. Although one might see a senior model in AARP ads, those people are quite close to our society’s baseline view of beauty. In essence, they are outliers. The men are fit and have hair and the women are slim and well groomed. The typical senior is expected to remain out of sight and cloistered with others of the same ilk. In addition, there is no limit to the creativity of big business to invent products supposedly to reverse aging in the contexts of physical appearance and sexual performance.
The world of technology is taking these values to the extreme. Workers are finding their knowledge becoming outdated in only five years. There is an endless supply of attractive and brilliant workers to replace those in their 30’s and 40’s. Goldman Sachs is “departnering” its partners after five years, a role which used to be a perk for a lifetime.
The hard work of changing perspective
Ageism is a conundrum for the recent retiree. It is absolutely unavoidable in society and when one looks in the mirror. A more progressive way to view it will take lots of effort, especially if it exists on a subconscious level in all humans. Here is the good news. Households headed by those over 65 are fifty times wealthier than those who are younger. Only 4% of the elderly wind up in nursing homes. Most seniors feel a greater degree of happiness than they ever felt as a younger person. Aging is not a problem or a disease. It is part of the normal life cycle.
Nature is a wonderful place to look for guidance. ALL animals age gracefully, both domestically and in the wild. None are aware of their physical appearanceor think about their vitality. They simply adjust. Plants are in the same category. My gorgeous daffodils last week have shed their petals, and I haven’t heard them crying. It is wise to remember your place in this universal progression.
Mylene Desclaux, a French writer, offered this advice to women over 50: don’t reveal your age, don’t have any birthday parties, don’t use reading glasses at a restaurant, and if your first name is old fashioned, adopt a new one! (maybe I should become Kelsey or Britney). I think I’ll pass on all of these suggestions.
Is there a shortcut to the world of self-acceptance? Probably not, because of our animalistic hard-wiring to fear death. But, remember, research has shown that the seven deadly isms are malleable. A good first step, is to acknowledge that getting older bothers you. When you catch yourself being critical of the elderly, just notice. (You’ll be noticing this a lot!) Letting your vulnerability show is much more attractive than an inappropriate and false physical self.
Think of yourself at a much younger age. Take lots of time, and ask yourself if you would really like to go back to that place in your life. Would you like to relearn all of the hard lessons you’ve picked up along the way? Try to excise the physical beauty element of your self-esteem. Play up your resilience, accomplishments, and hard-won wisdom. And remember, when you walk into a new doctor’s office, who would you rather see, the one with gray hair or the intern?