We are living in some pretty pernicious whitewater these days. The world is topsy turvy and it’s making most of us feel more than just a little queasy. In my last blessedly infrequent newsletter I shared a few of my thoughts about how COVID-19 along with other factors, has created a perfect storm that has brought long-overdue social injustices to the forefront of our hearts and minds. Mostly I shared several invaluable resources by those more qualified than I, to better inform you about how the turbulence we are experiencing is being experienced in communities across the country.
Today I want to talk to you about something that impacts you and which I feel better equipped to discuss: Ageism. It’s been fascinating; I’ve been on any number of webinars and coaching calls having to do with learning how to bring a focused social justice lens to our homes, workplaces, and communities. Yet ageism has only been brought up on one of those calls. When I invariably bring ageism up, there is immediate and widespread agreement that it affects all of us. It’s time for addressing ageism to be part of our activism.
Dr. Robert Butler, founding director of the National Institute on Aging, coined the term ageism in 1968 when he noted a growing obsession with youth, evidenced by popular sayings like: “Never trust anyone over 30.” The idea of respecting youth over maturity was a new concept in our culture.
The idea of respecting youth over maturity was a new concept in our culture. A couple of hundred years ago, when life expectancy hovered around 40, grey hair and signs of aging were rare and valued. The wisdom imparted from one generation to another not only bonded families but also passed along information deemed as important on an individual, familial, community-wide, and cultural basis. This appreciation and reverence for aging and wisdom was the reason for grey wigs worn in courts of law, for example.
Today we can expect to live to around 80, making older adults not only more common but also often portrayed as siphoning valuable resources away from younger generations without having much new information or value to add to the mix. The rapid-fire pace of technological change and the dearth of intergenerational experiences have combined to foster a cultural preference for all things youthful with an entrenched misunderstanding of the realities of the natural aging process and adult development.
Misperceptions about the frailty of older adults are rampant and particularly dangerous as they may become a tool for discrimination during COVID-19. Age alone is not a valid proxy for assessing one’s risk of developing COVID-19. Yes, advanced age is a risk factor. But it is not the only risk factor. A robust 65-year-old with no underlying health conditions may have a much greater chance of recovery than a 40-year-old with underlying conditions. Neither one is an unusual case.
Throughout the pandemic media headlines have highlighted the need to protect “older adults” from themselves, told stories of frustrated millennials whose parents don’t take the crisis seriously and even shared “boomer remover” memes that showcased the hubris of younger generations purporting a quasi-natural selection process. The age distribution of COVID cases looks more like a bell curve, with only the youngest amongst us having a significantly decreased infection rate. Recognizing ageism when we see it and dealing with it appropriately has never been so important.
Ageism isn’t solely a form of discrimination that impacts our employability or access to constrained resources. It is a mindset we hold against ourselves and others. Have you ever purchased a friend’s birthday card telegraphing that the best years were behind them or otherwise associating their birthday as inching towards senility? Even brands and companies keep us from respecting or even venerating age by targeting us with terms like anti-aging. As Amanda Hess wrote, “The only real solution to aging is, of course, death, but our central mode of dealing with that inevitability is to delay and deny it”. It feels as if our only choices are retreat or submission.
Anti-aging is anti-living.
The question is, where do we begin as individuals to address the challenges created by ageism, during the pandemic and beyond? The following are three steps each one of us can take to get started today:
Ageism is a mindset many of us haven’t realized that we have. Shifting it will not only help others but will also make for our own healthier, happier life. Research has shown that those people who have positive attitudes about aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative attitudes. Embrace aging as an awakening to wisdom, experience, and personal satisfaction.
We don’t associate adolescent struggles with crisis; we associate it as part of human development. Yes, we continue to develop and to grow as adults. Did you know that happiness increases from the age of about 50 onwards?
Part of the ageist problem is our outdated perception of life having three stages: youth, adulthood, old age. Adult development is way more nuanced than that; the stereotypes associated with age are as old as the rotary phone. Longevity patterns of the 21st century have created a new transitional life stage, Middlescence. The key is to consciously cultivate the tools to harness our energy, creativity, and wisdom to forge a vibrant future through what Chip Conley, founder of The Modern Elder Academy, aptly calls long-life learning.
The demographic gift of the 21st century has been an increase in our life span. In light of this, expanding your healthspan is something important to become educated about. Healthspan is the period of life that is free from serious disease and health-related limits to your activities of daily living. Explore Stanford University’s Center on Longevity for research, resources, and videos to learn more about the scientific discoveries, technological advances, behavioral practices, and social norms around aging and longevity.
It’s clear that aging is misunderstood and devalued in our society and that COVID-19 has brought this topic to the fore. As Gandhi famously said: “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Advocacy takes many forms. It begins by speaking up when you hear ageist comments; when you seek opinions from the elders in your life; when you work towards including mature workers on your team. The Frameworks Institute is a think tank that offers resources to help you communicate about aging (and other social issues) in ways that will affect change.
One of the painful legacies and also one of the gifts of COVID-19 may be that unvarnished social biases—including ageism–are finally being recognized and addressed. I believe that part of the reason we are examining and beginning to make course corrections is that the pandemic, in many ways, has given us the time to consider our individual and collective roles in the gamut of ‘isms’. It’s incumbent on each one of us to recognize injustice, to learn about how each one of us can help heal our nation, and then to take action, big or small, to affect positive change. When we re-emerge, let’s do so with a renewed understanding that the aging members of our society have wisdom, strength, and vitality, traits that can benefit all of us–if we honor them.
P.S. You’re officially invited to my 100th birthday celebration, according to the life expectancy calculator I will be living to the age of 104.
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