When our grandmother fell in our living room less than 24 hours after arriving in our new home in Kentucky for a visit, her 4-day visit ended up being about 8 weeks long. In the fall, she broke her hip which resulted in surgery followed by rehab before returning to her home in Pennsylvania.
One of our recurrent conversations was her frustration that everyone called her “honey” and “sweetie” in the nursing home where she received her rehab therapy. At the time, we mused that it was a cultural thing since we were living south of the Ohio River. And although that was admittedly a part of it, in hindsight, I believe it was also about ageism.
She thought it was patronizing and diminished her life experience as a college educated 89-year-old grandmother of 14. She was not the grandparent of the aids and nurses who tended her and she desired a bit more respect. Afterall, up until her fall, she lived in a 2-story walkup apartment, had flown on her own to visit us and was a very competitive Scrabble player!
The Only Prejudice Toward Our Future Selves
In 2020 the World Health Organization launched its decade to overcome ageism. This “ism” results in feelings, attitudes and actions toward ourselves and others based on how old we think they are. When we carry stereotypes about how we think someone should act or look at a specific age, that is ageism. When we prejudge someone based on concepts we have learned from the larger culture about how actions or behaviors correlate or are dissonant from what someone should be at that age, that is ageism. And when we formalize systems and policies that are dependent solely on someone’s age, that can be ageism.
Ageism can happen at any point in the life course. As a graduate student who went straight from undergrad to seminary, I experienced ageism. There were classmates who contended that their experience was so much more profound than for someone in their early 20s. And when I finished with my master’s degree, I found ageism alive and well in the outside world as well. Yes, there were colleagues who welcomed me and respected me, but there were others who were more comfortable treating me as their daughter or grandchild.
The Eternal Search to Appear Younger
It seems as though human beings have always searched for ways to be younger. Centuries ago, explorers set sail searching for the fountain of youth. And companies today market billions of dollars of products and services which they claim will cure old age. Products that will help us deny the years we have lived and the experience we have lived – which could be otherwise be seen as ingredients that enable us to grow in wisdom.
We are fortunate to live in a time where more people have the opportunity to not only live longer, but enjoy relative good health. We benefit from medical advances which have vaccinated us against diseases that were formerly death sentences. There are pharmaceutical and therapeutic options available which allow many to live with a diagnosis that in previous generations significantly affected the quality of life in later years. And yet, our culture fails to recognize these things as blessings. The reality is, there is no fountain of youth, but instead we live in a world in which wisdom could abound. (I say “could” because not everyone who lives into later life is wise. And there are many who are wise who have not yet reached their elderhood.) We live in a time that could be celebrating the fountain of wisdom!
New Series on the Many Forms of Ageism
With this blog, we begin a new series taking a look at many forms of ageism around us. We do this as we lead up to the 8th annual Symposium of the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging which will take place on Friday, October 6, 2023. The theme is “Dismantling Ageism: How Stereotypes, Prejudice and Discrimination Based on Age Affect Us All”. You can find more information on our website. Join us either in person in Columbus or on-line, as we consider how to dismantle the messages from the wider culture around us.
Please also watch for The Art of Aging podcasts which will be released in the coming weeks. These are conversations with the four speakers who will share their expertise with us at the Symposium: Dr. Tracy Gendron, Richard Eisenberg, Dr. Susanne Kunkle and Kris Geerken.
And why all this fuss about this last socially accepted “ism”? Because how we think about aging affects how we age and how long we may live. Let’s stop discriminating against our own future selves and embrace the fact that aging is living. Aging is a blessing. And there are things that we can do to help create a world without ageism.
For Reflection (either individually or with a group)
Read the blog. Read it a second time, maybe reading it aloud or asking someone else to read it aloud so you can hear it with different intonation and emphases. Then spend some time with the following questions with anything that helps you reflect more deeply.
- Where/when have you experienced someone making assumptions about you based on the age they think you are? How did it make you feel?
- Do you see Aging as a blessing? If yes, what are some of the benefits of aging?
- What, if any, stereotype about aging do you believe—either about yourself or about others--that you would like to change?
To learn more about ageism, join us at the 2023 Abundant Aging Symposium either In Person or Online. For full details and to register, go to https://www.unitedchurchhomes.org/2023-annual-symposium/.
Download a pdf including the Reflection Questions to share and discuss with friends, family, or members of your faith community small group.