Another landmark birthday is behind me, and I think I have officially joined an esteemed fraternity known as the 'older generation.' It seems just a couple of years ago that I was writing about positive aging as an outsider – realizing that I didn't like the condescending attitude toward elders in America. I was raised by my grandparents, who commanded (and got) respect.
But experience in the real world as an adult sent different messages. Elders in our culture – rather than being elevated, are diminished. I'm thinking about this again while reading a new book with the subtitle, "How your beliefs about aging determine how long & well you live." It's a hallelujah read!
I have a dear friend named Larry, who retired from a highly successful career as a banker and financier. He is now in his active 80s – traveling, writing, playing and recording music, walking miles a day, standing straight as a pillar, and doing good work in the community. He grew up in tough circumstances but pulled himself from the bottom of the economic ladder to the top rungs. In his early retirement years, Larry donated his time to a nonprofit working with men who landed hard on the wrong side of the tracks - formerly incarcerated, homeless and hopeless. After years of volunteering for that nearly full-time job, he's into a new chapter in life – without being burdened with presumptions and stereotypes that accompany aging in America. There are many people like Larry – my friend Molly who lived to be an active 98, and the 101-year-old mother of a friend whose face beamed with joy as she danced expertly on a Facebook post for her birthday. Another person who missed the memo on life being meaningless after retirement is my neighbor Merry – an octogenarian with more community meetings in one week than I have in a month and, as a Master Gardener, oversees an expansive garden that bows to her command.
Here are just a few false assumptions that permeate our culture: Advanced age means cognitive impairment, physical deterioration, depression, confusion, frailty, and loss of personal worth. This is represented by buzz words used in reference to America's elders. Words like 'geezer, biddy, ancient, blue-hair, duffer, codger, cute, senile, fossil.' Let's add 'senior moments' and younger people addressing an elder as "dear, sweetie, or hon." It's all demeaning, and it's damaging, not only to the receiver but also to an entire generation.
The author of "Breaking the Age Code" (Becca Levy, Ph.D.) compares the status of older Americans with how elders are perceived in some other cultures – as holders of wisdom, worthy of great respect, and elevated to honored positions in society.
This is true in many countries – and was once true in America. Information about survival – be it living off the land or carrying forward ancient traditions – was in the hands of elders. Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote that three generations are required to preserve the "continuity of all cultures." In America, before the industrial revolution, homes and businesses were usually under the control of the eldest in the family and passed down through generations. Factory jobs and outside employment disrupted this relationship and diminished the family status of elders, who went from being the source of wealth and wisdom to being perceived as dependents.
Younger generations inherit these assumptions, but what's really tragic is that older generations also buy the lie. And that's impacting our well-being and longevity. Researchers like Levy have substantial data showing that people with positive views on aging experience significantly better memory and physical functioning. But we're not getting that message across. Even our health care system operates on the assumption that age and adverse outcomes are aligned.
Of course, if you're over 65, you've likely experienced ageism in action. My most frequent encounter is with (mostly) young women who make the mistake of calling me "Dear or Honey or Sweetie." I am none of those to people I don't even know, and I have fantasies about leaping over the counter to correct them. And, yes, I usually inform them about how inappropriate they've been and how they haven't earned the right to call me "Dear.".
It's not their fault – they're reflections of a culture that's come to diminish its most experienced members. Perhaps they never had a grandmother like mine who showed me how to make soup from almost anything left in the fridge and told me that so long as you have something, you also have something to share with someone who has less. Or like my grandfather, who passed along a gift for making art that now fills and fuels my days.
But barking back at ageist remarks isn't enough. There is plenty of evidence from studies done throughout the world that perception influences living reality. It's not only a social issue; it's also a mental and physical health issue. How we perceive ourselves – able, talented, interesting, valuable – is fundamental to healthy, active aging. But that's a challenge when we're getting contradictory messages from the world around us. And it's a call to action.
There's a growing social movement to draw attention to and end ageism. Levy calls it the "Age Liberation Movement." Much like what's being accomplished with other social movements, it will take time and attention, and participation to change what it means to age in America. Until then, we don't have to march or flash protest signs to embrace the benefits of a long life – we only need to live it loudly and well.
Thanks for sharing your time and attention with me! Let me know what you think about aging in America and how you feel about it - at your age. At mine, it requires constant vigilance and action! Email me here - I love hearing from you! firstname.lastname@example.org .
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