Ageism: The Last Frontier
Do you have a favorite "conversation starter" when meeting new people? (If so, comment below!)
by Successful Aging in Action! | 1.15.20
“Fish did not discover water. In fact, because they are completely immersed in it, they live unaware of its existence. Similarly, when a conduct is normalized by a dominant cultural environment, it becomes invisible.” - Marshall McLuhan (philosopher)
By: Teresa Beshwate, MPH
Ageism - discrimination based on age - is often called the last acceptable form of discrimination. Although absent from our pre-Industrial Revolution history, ageism targeting older adults is so normalized and prevalent today that it can be hard to recognize.
A prime example is the greeting card aisle: finding a birthday card that honors aging requires a needle-in-haystack search. And well-intended comments like “You look great for your age,” and “You don’t look 55,” just adhere to the old-is-bad, young-is-good philosophy of ageism.
Take the Ageism Litmus Test
A fast and easy test to spot ageism is to replace the word “old” with a gender or ethnicity. If the sentence is then offensive, why would the same sentence with the word “old” be acceptable?
The Invisible Population
Interestingly, the hidden conduct that is ageism yields older people hidden. With the passing of time, graying of hair and transition into retirement, people can become, quite literally, invisible. Their experience, skills and contributions to society also become indiscernible and as a result. They are often regarded as irrelevant, obsolete and a drain on society.
Are those anti-ageism activists simply an overly sensitive bunch, searching for a reason to be offended in today’s politically correct world? In a word, no.
Ageism and Health
Research has proven that ageism has a dramatic impact on health and longevity. Those who view aging negatively suffer significant consequences physically and mentally. On the flip side, their counterparts with more positive views on aging live 7.5 years longer, with less illness, better functional health, better brain health, better psychological well-being, and they exhibit healthier behaviors.
Human Capital: A Message for the Young
As opposed to drains on society, those counter-cultural anti-ageism advocates see older people as solutions to most societal problems we face today. They believe that by harnessing the skills, knowledge and expertise of older people, we can very likely prevent or solve every single social ill.
Older individuals tend to have the time and talents to bring gardening to food deserts, teach resilience to the fragile and mentor high risk youth.
Want to learn a new language or how to tackle that kitchen remodel? How to nail the job interview or fix the sink? Might the kids need some afterschool supervision, music lessons or tutoring?
The solutions are among us, if we choose to see them and seek them out. Imagine a society that includes and values older people, that seeks their time and talents as a first step.
There should be an app for that. In the meantime, it’s possible to connect needs with available expertise. Ask at nearby churches or call local retirement communities. Go to places where older adults are, and simply ask. Ask for a retired teacher, executive, farmer or carpenter. You’ll likely be surprised at the treasure trove of experience, wisdom and skills you’ll find, along with the willingness to help. We all need to feel needed. It’s a win/win.
Becoming Visible and Invincible: A Message for the Older Among Us
Ageism is frequently inflicted by others, but perhaps the more toxic variety is that which is self-inflicted by the thoughts that play on loop in our minds. For example, “At my age, the best years are behind me,” and “People my age can’t --” Those harmful thoughts might be playing on loop in your mind yet remain completely under the radar of your awareness. Eavesdrop on your thoughts and identify which are serving you and delete those that are not.
Make a list of your skills – all of them. Don’t underestimate or devalue your knowledge simply because it seems common sense to you. You may have cooked meals for 60 years and think nothing of it, while this might be exactly the knowledge a new widower needs.
No matter your limitations, whether physical or cognitive, know that your skills are needed in society. Think of Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela or any number of people who overcame major obstacles to make their mark on the world. If you have a pulse, you have a purpose.
Find an opportunity to give of your time and talents for the benefit of your local community. You’ll be healthier and your community will be stronger as a result.
At your next family gathering or holiday meal, try out these conversation starters:
· Using only one word per person, how would you describe each person present today?
· What has been the best day of your life so far?
· What do you wish you had known when you were 20?
· What is the worst advice you’ve ever received? And the best?
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