The first documented use of the word “ageism” as reported by Merriam-Webster was in 1969, who defines Ageism as: “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly.” Dictionary.com adds, “a tendency to regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention, or unsuitable for employment.”
How many of us have heard these words, “you look pretty good, FOR YOUR AGE.” I remember when I was younger I would say the same thing – as if aging needed to be a qualifier for whatever nice statement you were making. By the time I turned 40, I never used those words ever again, “for your age.”
The World Health Organization offers this: “Ageism is widely prevalent and stems from the assumption that all members of a group (for example older adults) are the same. Like racism and sexism, ageism serves a social and economic purpose: to legitimize and sustain inequalities between groups. It’s not about how we look. It’s about how people that have influence, assign meaning to how we look.”
Why do we feel this way about the 50+ age group? Perhaps it starts at home? Or at school? I thought I would ask some men and women over the age of 75 and also some that were under the age of 30 to see if there was an area of miscommunication, commonality, or improvement.
This is What They Had to Say
About half of the 75+ age group felt the effects of ageism.
Diane, aged 75, originally from upstate New York, USA, said that “sometimes people seem to think I am feeble or cannot function on my own speed.” I asked if she ever felt invisible to which she replied, “Yes, in certain shopping situations. It is like I have no value or maybe money to select and purchase… I am not wealthy, do not dress in rags, but am often overlooked or shunned by clerical or shop personnel. It gets frustrating.”
Gail, aged 80 from Ontario, Canada, is somewhat feisty, which makes me want to sit right next to her. When I asked if she felt discriminated against because of her outward age appearance she wrote, “I’m basically disabled now, so yes, discrimination is very present. Many times, we are ignored in stores, or people look at me with disdain in their eyes.”
Follow-up question was if she found herself biting her tongue or keeping quiet unless her opinion was asked. “Still very much working on that one. I keep promising myself to just shut up but I’m not very good at it. I do find that I spend a lot of time alone so when company is present, I feel I chatter on and on, and I hate that about me. A work in progress.”
Does Gail ever feel invisible? “Yes, unfortunately. I’m invisible most of the time and while I understand it, I hate it.”
Gail added, “The hardest part of aging is the constant, never ending sense of loss. Friends, family, downsizing is constant, health deteriorates, on and on, loss after loss. No way you can avoid it but it just doesn’t stop.”
Olwyn-Ann, aged 75 and originally from England, said that she found that while waiting in queues she was constantly overlooked, especially by men.
I asked Ed, aged 75 and originally from Latvia, if he ever felt invisible. He gave a rather interesting answer. He said, “No I don’t. Those that do probably have made themselves invisible.” I also asked Ed if he found himself biting his tongue or keeping quiet unless his opinion was asked for. “One needs to assess the situation. There are too many times that no opinion will make an impact on those that are voicing theirs.”
I really like Ed’s thinking.
My Auntie Judi, aged 77 from New Jersey, USA said she felt invisible in big public spaces, but not as much in controlled smaller spaces. She said she feels discriminated against by “teenagers and folks in their twenties.”
I asked Faye, almost 78 from Canada, if she ever felt like screaming to the world, “I may be gray, but I’m not dead yet!” Faye’s response, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” When I asked her if she ever felt like her contribution to a conversation would fall on deaf ears she said, “Yes. My reality is almost the total opposite of theirs. They have yet to experience the situations that I have survived, and hopefully and probably will never have to.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT…
“Women not only bear the brunt of the equation of beauty with youth, we perpetuate it—every time we dye our hair to cover the gray or lie about our age, not to mention have plastic surgery to cover the signs of aging.” -Ashton Applewhite, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism
The Under 30 Crowd
I thought it only fair to get another age group’s opinion on how they felt about Ageism and how it relates to Ageism in the older adult. Luckily, I have a son and daughter in their 20’s along with the opinions of some of their friends.
I asked them all how they felt about older people. Daniel, aged 22 with an undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice, said this, “I feel like some older people think they know too much. They do not want to listen to reason.” He went on to say that, “I do feel the older generation discriminate against the youth, however, I feel the youth does the same.”
Jaime, aged 23 with a degree in Philosophy, had this to say, “I think old people have a lot to teach us about life and have important stories to tell. Though, as you get older it seems as if a lot of people have become very set in their ways (which is completely understandable) and closed minded (not in every case of course) and I think that leads to misunderstanding and misguided views of others and the next generation.”
When I asked James, aged 26 with an undergraduate degree in Psychology and currently in law school, if he felt the older generation discriminated against the youth he said, “To an extent. But, I would speculate it’s no more than I prejudge people older and younger than me. In either instance, this prejudice can be overcome by demonstrating one’s knowledge or skill.”
Chloe, aged 23 is a Registered Nurse. When asked if she thought older people contribute to society and if they did, in what way – she replied, “I love older people. I do not infantilize them. They have seen crap and need to be heard. They may not be able to physically add to society by doing (this does not apply to everyone), but intellectually and emotionally speaking, they add so much!”
I asked Kara, aged 22 and majoring in Business, if she felt she was discriminated against by the older generation. She said, “Sometimes, the world has changed and some people fail to realize this.”
Megan, aged 22 with a degree in Economics, when asked if she felt her opinion was dismissed by the older generation, had this to say, “No, I don’t feel as though my opinion is dismissed by the older generation.” But then she went on to say, “From my perspective, I also see a trend (in the business setting) where higher level management includes you in discussion and allows for contribution to make you feel you are a part of the group, but rather gets dismissed automatically. Almost as if it’s a hoax.”
For my own amusement, I asked each one of them what age do they consider to be “old.”
Daniel … “I think old is a mindset. Once you commit to being old mentally, your body follows.”
Jaime … “It depends on the individual. Some people get old at 50 and others at 80. I think though for myself, I will probably start to think of myself as old when I’m approaching 60.”
James … “When I was a child, I considered someone in their twenties to be old. Now that I am 26, I consider someone in their late 50’s to 60’s to be ‘older.’ Old starts at the age of 70 for me.”
Chloe … “Once you hit 70, you’re getting old.”
Kara … “60ish or so.”
Megan… “I would say about 60 years old.”
I asked each of the under 30 group what they thought should be done about bridging the gap, as a way to end Ageism. Almost unanimously, and without knowledge of what the other person said, “COMMUNICATION” was their answer.
I think the responsibility to end Ageism lies in two areas. First, at the high school level. It should be mandatory for every high school student to take an Ageism class once a year for the years they are in school. Perhaps the first year the students learn the history of what it was like growing up in the older generations’ generation. Maybe the second year, the students learn about all the accomplishments of the older generations’ contributions to society. Another year spent on how to communicate wants and needs of both generations, and so on. For their final year each student must befriend an older person and interview them, spend a week with them (at their house) to see what their life is really like. The other area of responsibility lies at home. A lot of how mom and dad treat and communicate with their parents and older family members says a lot to their children. If they are treated with respect, kindness, love, and a real affection for their stories and wisdom, it will go a long way.
What it boils down to simply said, COMMUNICATION.