If you’re over 65 years old, you may relate to what I’m writing about today. If you’re under that landmark age, I offer the following observations under the categories of:
A. Advice from an Elder in your tribe and,
B. Pay attention: you may be lucky enough to live into genuine old age.
Feeling that I need to talk about this topic arose while writing several blogs about recent forest fires in the West. Here’s what happened: As some of you know, I was a journalist for most of my professional career. I covered everything – from abuse in a California veterans' home to crooked politicians. I chased sirens, hid from a sniper, interviewed famous and infamous personalities. In the early 1990s, I covered the Cleveland Fire, a 24,500-acre fire that consumed dozens of homes on the winding road to Lake Tahoe. I ran like hell from an explosion when a tanker plane crashed near my photographer and me. I received a prestigious journalism award for that series of stories.
This is not to boast – I was doing my job as a professional. Fast forward to the Caldor Fire. No longer an active reporter, I did most of my information gathering over the phone with fire and law enforcement authorities as I wrote a series of blogs. However, I wanted to tell you what it’s like for a firefighter on the front lines. I asked for an interview with someone off duty at the local fire camp and was told to just ‘pop down there’ and talk to the Public Information Officer (PIO) on duty, who would line me up with a personal interview. I pulled up to the PIO trailer and approached the uniformed on-duty officer. I started to explain what I wanted and that I’d been directed to him by the top fire PIO. He nodded his head a few times, and then two television reporters approached him. One of them was a blond, attractive young woman. The other was a guy hoisting a camera on his shoulder. I became little more than background noise. The PIO could not get enough of the perky reporter. His dismissal of me was, “Someone will call you.” No one called me.
So, I wondered about this on the long drive home. Was it a fascination with the specter of being on TV? I mulled this around for days, and suddenly it dawned on me. I am a 75-year-old woman. Next to a perky youthful reporter (no matter how little work experience she could possibly have), I was irrelevant. It was a heads-up for me and reawakened my disdain for one of the last frontiers of sanctioned discrimination – ageism.
A simple example of our accepted attitude about growing older stares us in the face with birthday cards that joke about ‘senior moments’ and ‘over the hill.’ No one takes offense to talk-show hosts using demeaning terms like 'old codger' and 'batty old lady.' Jokes about elders are abundant. There’s no celebrating the victory of growing older. Accomplished. Wiser. And. there’s no dignity in being called ‘Honey’ or ‘young lady' or 'young man’ by a 20-year- old barista. And that doesn’t begin to cover the countless other insults that older people endure every day – most often without objecting.
Now, in case people think this is harmless fun – it’s not. The harm is documented in a 2021 study by the World Health Organization. Here’s how the WHO defines it: “Ageism arises when age is used to categorize and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage, and injustice.” Diminished mental and physical health, social isolation, and even premature death were documented in the report. How can this be acceptable and perpetuated – particularly in an era of elevated social consciousness and activism?
Interestingly, it wasn’t always like this. Before the Industrial Revolution, elders held wealth and power in land, businesses, homes. Generations depended on them as ‘head of the family,’ and the source of inheritance. That alone commanded respect. Today, ‘elder’ has come to mean 'elderly' - with all the negatives surrounding the term.
And the stereotype plays out in mainstream American life. Ageism is just like racism, homophobia, and all other forms of discrimination we condemn today. So, I want to thank the officer who made assumptions about my value compared to that of the cute cub reporter. He did, for a moment, knock me off-center, I admit. But I am back! And heaven help the next person who mistakes me for a frail, incapable grandmother.
I was fortunate to have a role model for the fight. My good friend Mollie lived to be a vibrant 97. She had no tolerance for being talked down to or ignored. When she was 94, I made business cards for her, designed for those encounters with folks who were foolish enough to assume she was deaf, senile, or a weakling. Here’s her message: “I’m not your sweetie, honey, dear or your young lady (been there and done that!). Treat your elders with RESPECT. With luck, you might get here someday!”
Mollie was ahead of her time. But ours is now. Those of us on the receiving end of ageism ought to stand up and speak out. And, if you’re among the younger crowd, kindly add ‘ageism’ to your repertoire of behaviors that have got to go.
Thanks for reading my ‘rant’ today. If you’re curious about ageism, I found a robust resource on the topic that I plan to count on myself – Old School – Anti ageism Clearinghouse. And let me know your own experiences with ageism! firstname.lastname@example.org
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