“I don’t tell anyone my age,” my new retired, vibrant and active friend responded. We were sharing the details of our lives. After I had revealed my age along with other personal details, I asked her how old she was. I flashed on the memory of one of my aunts who didn’t tell anyone, even family, how old she was until she was well past 80. Why are we so fearful to reveal this piece of data about ourselves that is part of the public record?
As I pondered this question, I explored several possibilities. Is it because our culture extols the fresh-faced beauty of youth but not the creased face that records the smiles and puzzling frowns of life? Is it because we don’t value the wisdom, perspective and experience of those who have gone before us? Instead we value the impulsive spontaneity and innovative risk-taking of college drop-out entrepreneurs. Is it because a high number means we are closer to the end of our life and the recognition of our finite existence on this earth? Is it because we don’t want to acknowledge that we can no longer count on the physical strength and stamina of our bodies, as we did at twenty-five?
I believe the answer is yes to all of those possibilities and more. Because our society blatantly places more value on the young than on the old, we know that as we age, we face a lack of respect, rejection, exclusion and isolation. We fear the pain, illness and loss that growing old represents. We hear our politicians threaten to cut Medicare which may provide our only life-line to health care and medicine. We fear Social Security will no longer be the safety net that keeps many of us from living on the street. We worry we will out-live our savings knowing we either have no family to support us or that our family can’t or won’t support us.
Society Doesn’t Care
We are afraid to acknowledge our age because we know that our society doesn’t care about our elders. It is evident in the discrimination in the workplace, the caricatures in the media, the lack of funding for health care, the cuts threatening Social Security and in the subtleties of our daily conversation when we tell someone they don’t look 50 or 60 or 70. Dr. Robert Butler coined the term “ageism” in the late 60’s to describe the discrimination, attitudes and actions that institutionally and personally harm our elders. Ageism shapes our views and impacts our behavior. It keeps us from feeling good about who we are as we age, it breeds fear about our future and it challenges and weakens the very institutions that we need to care for us as we age.
What can we do?
Although we cannot stop the forward movement of our chronological age, we believe in our 3rd Act work that being proactive mitigates the corrosive effects of ageism on our own mental attitudes about age. When we can acknowledge the wisdom of our experience, cultivate the joy of being present and appreciate who we are, we begin to value our worth and contradict those ageist cultural views. By acknowledging our age as vital, healthy and active seniors, we begin to counter the old negative images of decline, disabled and worthless. Of course, that means that we also need to stay healthy, vital and active by keeping ourselves physically fit and socially engaged.
Will the tsunami of baby boomers now reaching 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day change our view of the elderly? Will the 78 million baby boomers moving into elder hood have the impact on our ageist views and values that this population wave has had as it swept through all the other institution in our society? I hope so. But as they age and the impact begins to be felt, I commit myself to an inner housecleaning of my own ageist views, staying physically fit and socially engaged… and finding ways to advocate for respect and caring of our elders, including myself.