This blog post could be short. My initial thought when I first heard of ageism (well after its coining n 1969) was: Huh? How is that possible? What does that even mean?
Of course, I was young, new in my government career, and coveting jobs held by what we called “dinosaurs.”
Then, I became one of the dinosaurs and had to scrap for every promotion and award with kids fresh out of college. In the beginning I’d had to prove myself because of my youth and inexperience. At the end of my career, I had to prove I wasn’t in my dotage.
Until It Happens to You
Like most entitled folk, I sometimes “don’t see” discrimination until it happens to me, and, unlike racism or misogyny, ageism is sometimes subtle.
It’s grocery clerks or wait staff or nurses or anyone half or less your age who somehow decide that calling you “honey” or “sweetie” or “darling” is something you crave.
It’s people who, when you tell them you’re hard of hearing (from noise damage caused by airplane engines not age), they raise their voices, smile sweetly, and speak to you as if you’re five.
It’s having a mechanic try to BS you into believing something is wrong with your vehicle… Oh wait. That happened to me when I was a young woman. That’s more misogyny than ageism.
It’s people in doctor’s offices who look at your age on the chart and offer to “help” you into and out of your chair.
Maybe that’s not exactly ageism, but a preconceived notion that once you hit a certain age, you’re weak and infirm.
No, that’s ageism.
Ageism Can be Deadly
That attitude that once someone reaches a particular age makes it easy for caregivers in nursing homes or even in families to consider that person less than useful, less than what he or she used to be. That, unfortunately, can lead to various forms of elder abuse–from stealing money, emptying bank accounts, to actual physical abuse. The belief that the older a person gets the more useless they are renders them less than human. Dehumanization makes harsh treatment easier to occur.
I remember clearly something that happened in high school. My grandmother was visiting, and she loved the old drug stores that had lunch counters. She particularly loved their chocolate milkshakes. At this particular time, she was in her sixties, an age I can relate to, and she was dressed as she always did for an “outing”: in a nice dress, purple, of course, matching shoes and coat. It was misting rain that day, and she had a bright, fluorescent purple scarf tied around her newly coiffed hair.
To me she was just grandma. She always dressed that way–bright, outlandish colors, usually varying shades of purple–and I thought nothing of it as we sat at the counter waiting for our shakes.
Not so for two girls a couple of years ahead of me in school. My grandmother’s hearing was bad by then, but mine was perfect. I heard them make fun of everything about her, and I was…embarrassed to be seen with her, something I’d never been before. It wasn’t until years later I understood that was ageism, that those two girls decided my bright, active, vivacious grandmother was worthy of disdain because she was, to them, old. They dehumanized her, saw her as a useless thing, and that made it easy, even funny, to criticize her.
What if she’d ended up in a nursing home with people who felt that way?
As a retired nurse, she’d seen quite a few of what passed for nursing homes in the fifties and sixties, and her ardent wish was that she never go to live in one.
I’ve often joked I’m a sixteen-year-old trapped in a sixty-something body. I text. I’m tech-savvy. I’m a gadget nerd. I don’t dress like other women my age. Hell, I wear brightly patterned leggings, some with airplanes on them. One pair I have has a pattern of clouds and lightning, and one of those lightning bolts appears to emerge from my a$$. My version of shades of purple I suppose.
I had a friend say to me not long before my sixtieth birthday, “Now that you’re turning sixty, are you going to dress your age?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Are you going to stop wearing jeans and tee-shirts and odd shoes and wear something age appropriate?”
That was ageism. You can imagine what I said to that.
I’m lucky to have kids who don’t think of me as descending toward uselessness, and I think that’s key. If you’ve brought them up to respect the worth and dignity of everyone at all stages of life, you won’t be an inconvenience they shuttle off to an “assisted living facility.”
So, here’s my thought for those smiling, simpering, young things who call me cute names and talk to me as if I’m incapable of understanding a polysyllabic word: Suck it up, buttercup. Your time will come.
What are your thoughts about ageism? Experienced it yet? Guilty of it?