The problem of ageism is coming out of the shadows and into the public eye. I had the opportunity to be part of a fascinating panel hosted by The Atlantic, where we discussed the growing problem of age discrimination and what can be done about it. I was able to talk about my work with the World Health Organization, which is working to combat ageism around the world. Please share your thoughts on this important issue!
I have to admit that I never expected to be compared to Pope Francis! Now if I am totally honest, I wasn’t exactly compared to the Holy Father. However, my book, 30 Lessons for Living, was just favorably compared to a book by Pope Francis and Friends, which still feels pretty flattering. And the Pope’s book is a very interesting one.
Pope Francis published a earlier book with his answers to children’s questions. He followed it up with this one:
Now in his 80s, Francis has published Sharing the Wisdom of Time, along with 250 interviewees, as well as editors and writers at Loyola Press and elsewhere — curated by Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica.
Ranging in age from their 60s to their 90s, the participants muse on the meaning of events in their lives that relate to work, struggle, love, death and hope as they share pivotal moments and the lessons learned.
Both wealthy and poor, educated and unskilled, the participants had worked as farmers, historians, teachers, recyclers, priests, pastors, chefs, nurses, writers and film directors, among other occupations. There’s also a 98-year-old veteran (he died several months before this book was published), who reminiscences about his bombing runs during World War II.
Whether Catholic or not, the book is of interest (and possibly inspiration) to anyone interested in elder wisdom and how it can transform our lives.
I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, and I was a bit overwhelmed looking forward to the coming week. Don’t get me wrong – I love my job. But facing the emails and tasks that are waiting can take a bit of the usual spring out of one’s step.
So I went back to the Legacy Project Elders, and I found what I needed. Flora, 80 and still very active, suggests the following idea. I’m trying it tomorrow (and I feel better already)!
Flora’s approach to living is to embrace the pleasures each day holds, and she reinforces that attitude with a daily habit:
I like to start out the day with a list of ten things that I’d like to do that day. Now, I’m not going to accomplish all of them and probably only one of them is going to work out, but I never know which one, at the beginning of the day. It’s not a “to do” list—it’s just a list of what I would like to try doing. I’m always looking for new things to try. They don’t have to be difficult things—I’m probably not going to take up hang gliding or something like that. Something simple. Finding new opportunities and new challenges each day.
If I were to give any particular word of advice, I would say, go about the business of the day, humdrum as it might be, but walk on your tiptoes, waiting for the “aha!” experiences. That happens when you’re going around the corner doing the normal, everyday things. So be prepared for those “aha!” experiences that may happen anytime. That way you’re always open to, and watching for, something different—watching for a feather from an angel’s wing.
Edwina Elbert, 94, on the adventure of aging:
People have to learn to be thankful. To see the wonders of this world – you know, we are here for such a short time. I didn’t realize I was old until I was ninety years old. There’s still so much to see and so much to read, and so much to learn. We should be thankful that we’ve had this opportunity to live. It’s strange about this…the way that it’s all set up so that we only have a certain length of time. But we’re lucky. Aren’t we lucky to have seen the Empire State building and all of this stuff?
My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic. The world is a magical place in lots of ways. To enjoy getting up in the morning and watching the sun come up. And that’s something that you can do when you are growing older. You can be grateful, happy for the things that have happened. You should enjoy your life. Grow a little.
Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean that you need to stop growing. I used to think that when you got old you sat back in a rocking chair and let the world go by. Well that’s not for me and that’s not for a lot of people. I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.
There’s no reason for anybody in this world to ever be bored. That’s one thing I’ve always said. Well if I died and went to heaven, I’d be bored to death with how they say heaven is. There’s no need for you to be bored in this world. There’s so much out there. And your attitude, be optimistic. I’ve been optimistic all my life. Even as a little girl I can remember that no matter what happened it would turn out all right. In this country almost everybody is taking antidepressants. Why in the world are people taking antidepressants? It should be a wonderful world. Mine has been a great ride, believe me.
My involvement in the Legacy Project has brought me some wonderful experiences, but none beats my “wisdom dialogue” last Saturday with the amazing Tao Porchon-Lynch. As the New York Times declared in a feature article this month, Tao is the “98-year old yoga celebrity” with an incredible life story: professional dancer, model, actress; associate of notables from Ghandi, to Hemingway, to Noel Coward, to Marilyn Monroe, to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. And she’s in the Guinness Book of world records as “oldest yoga teacher,” keeping a full schedule of classes (despite a hip replacement). And she started a prize-willing career as a competitive ballroom dancer at age 87. Talk about “successful aging…”
The wonderful Rubin Museum in New York City brought Tao and me together in their”Wisdom Matrix” series, to discuss “The Secret to a Good Life.” It was a true peak experience to sit with someone who marched with Ghandi, lived through the Blitz in London, and went on to become a contemporary spiritual master. We covered a wide range of topics in our discussion, but for me the most striking thing was Tao’s unabashedly positive approach to life. She consciously rejects fear and instead focuses on breathing, exhorting us to feel the “breath of life” that connects us with all other humans. She declares each morning that the day at hand will be “the best day,” and lives her life that way.
As someone who came as close as one can to failing a yoga class, she did an amazing shoulder stand that would have put me in the orthopedic unit.
The video of the discussion will come out soon. In the meantime, I recommend Tao’s book, Dancing Light: The Spiritual Side of Being through the Eyes of a Modern Yoga Master. It interweaves Tao’s extraordinary life with her spiritual insights.
In the past you have come up with great advice for people who wrote to the Legacy Project blog asking for advice. Can you help this young woman, below? Please comment with your advice and suggestions!
My partner and I are very different. I used to think that being different people made the relationship exciting, but three years later it is starting to take a toll on my happiness. I am constantly asking myself whether this is the person I want to spend my life with – and I don’t know the answer to that anymore. I love him with all my heart but I feel like I am outgrowing him. I am very career-driven. I just graduated university and on my way up the career ladder, whereas he is 7 years older than me with no formal qualifications and an entry level laboring job. When I get home from work I want to have intellectual conversations and am excited to share what happened during the day. He would listen but it would go right over his head and he will say “Oh yeah, well anyways today…” and start talking about something else. It just discourages me so much. Before I used to be fine with him finishing a work week and having a beer with the boys but now a week finishes and I want to have a quiet night at home with him – but he is still adamant on spending time with the boys and having a beer. I am over it; I just feel like I really need someone on my level. We are similar in every other way, culture, sense of humor, family and religious values, but it’s other things that get me down and make me question the relationship. I don’t think this comment has any structure at all (complete brain fart) but anyway. I would like to hear about anyone’s experience who has bitten the bullet and chosen to accept a difference and if it actually helps or whether you are better off finding someone more compatible?
Please weigh in!
In my surveys of over 700 long-married older people, I heard one lesson again and again: “You don’t just marry a person; you marry his or her family.” . Despite the fact that most dating couples do not spend much time thinking about their partner’s family, the elders tell you unequivocally: in-laws matter.
It’s no coincidence that popular culture focuses so heavily on in-law relationships, from the meddling mom and dad in “Everybody Loves Raymond” to the “Meet the Parents” movies. These images reflect deep-seated worries about balancing loyalty to one’s spouse with life-long bonds of attachment and obligation to parents, siblings, and other kin. This worry is not an irrational one; research also shows that in-law relations are a key determinant of marital happiness.
But what should you do? As I combed through hundreds of reports of in-law relations — ranging from loving and respectful relationships to “in-laws from hell” — I uncovered three terrific lessons for insulating your relationship from problems with one another’s’ families. These rules for in-law relations have been tested by hundreds of the oldest Americans for decades — given what’s at stake, we should pay close attention.
Rule # 1: Your loyalty is to your spouse.
Life is full of difficult decisions in which no solution leaves everyone happy. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a difficult in-law situation creates — a classic example of ambivalence that in a worst-case scenario may persist over years (or even a lifetime). But sometimes the elders cut through all the complexity and just tell you what to do. Here’s their advice on dealing with the supposed ambivalence of in-law relations:
In a conflict between your spouse and your family, support your spouse.
The elders are unequivocal; it is your duty to support your husband or wife and to manage your own family in a way that consistently conveys this fact. Further, you both must present a united front to both families, making it clear from the beginning that your spouse comes first.
In couples where this allegiance did not happen, marital problems swiftly followed. In fact, some of the bitterest disputes occurred over a spouse’s failure to support his or her partner. When I asked Erin, 66, to describe a conflict that came up in her marriage, she didn’t hesitate:
Oh yeah, his mother. A lot of conflict. I had the impression she didn’t like me very much. I could live with that, but my husband never stuck up for me, so we fought about it. The apron strings were tied to him, and you just didn’t go against Mommy. And we fought about it because he would say, “Oh you’re crazy, she never said that.” And I’d go, “I don’t believe you don’t believe me.” And arguments would start. And after it was over I’d say, you know, how stupid we’re arguing about this, God forbid we get divorced over her. My husband would never say anything like “Hey mom, that’s my wife, cool it.” I never got that.
So when there is conflict between your family and your spouse, don’t feel caught in the middle, because your place is on your spouse’s side. To do otherwise is to undermine the trust that is the underpinning of your marriage.
Rule # 2: Remind yourself why you are doing it.
This tip from the elders is one that many have used like a mantra in difficult in-law situations. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your partner’s family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer in marriage. You are used to putting up with your own relatives and you have accommodated to their quirks and foibles. But now you have to do it all over again. The closest thing to a “magic bullet” for motivating yourself to put the effort into in-law relations, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your spouse.
Most important, by staying on good terms with his or her relatives, you are honoring and promoting your relationship in one of the best ways possible. Gwen, 94 and married 67 years, puts it clearly:
You may not like your mother-in-law or your father-in-law or your in-laws very much but you certainly can love them and stay close to them. Remember that they’re your loved one’s family. I learned to love them. I mean, I loved them because they were my husband’s parents and I loved him.
Rule # 3: Eliminate politics from discussion.
Here’s a specific tip that could not be more relevant during this election season: Keep political arguments out of in-law relations. It can be the biggest bomb in the minefield, and the elders say that these conflicts are unnecessary. There is simply no need to attempt to engage your in-laws in political debates or to convert them.
Often, the urge is to make parents-in-law “really understand” what’s going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically. I heard many accounts of holiday dinners and family gatherings disrupted by debates over the President, the Congress, abortion, the death penalty, and on and on.
According to the elders, you may not be able to avoid conflict over your in-laws’ disapproval of your marriage, your job, your lifestyle, or how you raise your children. But you can make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. (Remember, we’re not talking here about a lively, enjoyable political discussion; I mean the kind that ends with slamming doors and a spouse crying in the car.)
Let’s return to Gwen for her advice. Gwen made in-law visits much more tolerable by following this lesson and cutting politics out of the interaction.
My husband didn’t care for my dad because my dad was a completely different kind of person compared to my husband. My dad was the boss of everybody and everything. He was never aggressive; he never hit us kids or my mother. But he was a total boss. What my dad said was law and order and we all knew it. And my husband was a gentle, soft-spoken, easy-going person who would rather die than make a fuss. He was a completely different personality. In particular, they didn’t see eye to eye about the government. My dad was a Democrat, my husband was a Republican. They’d get into those arguments.
So finally, I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: “If Dad starts in about the Republicans, I’m going to walk out of the room and you come see what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to hear this anymore.” I guess that was the only problem in our early marriage. Of all the big decisions we had to make in marriage, I think the most important was deciding that I wasn’t going to listen to that problem between my father and my husband.
You may wish to apply this same rule to other “hot-button” issues (based on my own extended family, I’m tempted to include Red Sox versus Yankees…). When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, leaving the room is an excellent — and potentially relationship-saving — option.
We’re pleased to share with you the post from our second summer intern! Melanie Turner is a junior at the University of Virginia, majoring in speech pathology and Spanish. She learned valuable insights from Sam about drive and commitment at work. Here’s her post:
86-year-old Sam, a chemical engineer who worked for 42 years at the same company, believes that being successful in one’s career requires a willingness to see any task through to completion: In his view, work’s not just fun. Work is work, by definition, and to get ahead in this life you have to work hard.
Looking back on his life, Sam attributes his promotion in the company to working hard, even on undesirable assignments. He recalls that when top executives at his firm were faced with a challenging interpersonal situation, his reputation for being competent and dependable served him well.
Be known in the business for the person who can get it done. I was always that way. I remember we had some environmental problems in the company, and three professors from a local university had put together a proxy statement that we were going to have to send out to our shareholders. And there were Catholic nuns – you know, Catholic converts – and they felt we weren’t paying sufficient enough attention to environmental matters. Of course, a company doesn’t like to send out proxies like that to its shareholders.
So we went around the room with all the ten executives sitting there, and we said, “Hmm, now who’s going to handle this problem?” And I could see everybody sweating, because they were all good at interpersonal relations. You couldn’t be in that room if you weren’t. But it always ended up with me. They all took a big sigh of relief around the table: “Thank God he didn’t stop on me! Good old Sam can do it.
Sam identifies his dependability as one reason for his success. Even though he didn’t want to reason with displeased shareholders, he was willing to approach the task optimistically. This attitude earned him respect with his colleagues. In fact, when the company faced a difficult circumstance involving a law firm, Sam’s reputation for always doing his job well saved his career.
They hired a New York law firm, and the guy said “Well, the first thing you gotta do is get a fall guy and fire him,” so that everybody can say, “They’re taking positive steps.” So the CEO called me in and said, “Sam, here’s the deal: the first step they recommend is that I’d fire you.”
Sam told me he was frightened, but that he did not give up hope. After reading an article about the way a different company’s interim CEO proved his ability to serve as the permanent replacement, Sam decided to advocate for himself on the basis of his effort and dedication.
I cut this out of the newspaper, and brought it into the CEO: “You know, I think I am the best guy for the job. And I just read this article.” And this is what happened. He said, “I can’t believe you read that article, because I read the same article in Fortune, and I thought about you.” He said, “You are the best guy for the job.” That was the answer. It was over. A month later I was voted to be the vice president of corporation, and corporate officer.
Sam’s hard work, willingness to deal with unforeseen problems, and commitment to the firm led to his continued employment and subsequent promotion. His tenacity teaches us that success in one’s career depends on pushing through no matter what challenges we face. In sum, Sam believes it’s all about “being the go to guy to get it done.”
Our summer interns are back! These undergraduates spent part of the summer interviewing older people about their advice for living, through the Risk And Resiliency Internship at Cornell. Here’s the post from David Lachs, a junior attending New York University majoring in Neuroscience, Psychology, and Mental Health studies. While conducting his interview, David learned the importance of considering the role of control in our lives.
We often find ourselves faced with challenges, stress, and difficult decisions on a daily basis. I interviewed Grace, age 67, who says it’s how we handle these situations that makes all the difference. When we encounter such a circumstance, Grace reminds us how critical it is to take a step back and exercise our judgment. She noted:
Many events that happen to us are a result of a chance. But of course many, too, derive from conscious choices we make. Nevertheless, consider the idea of us able to categorize things into two groups: that which we can control, and that which we cannot control.
She went on:
When the moment goes awry, and the circumstances drift away from you, recall the two aforementioned categories. If a decision is not yours to make, or an event is not contingent upon your will, or someone’s actions will be independent of your own, then what is the use in fretting [over them]? Stress is already abundant! And free for the taking. It’s not as if you can change these outcomes. Be conscientious with what you bring in your domain of concern.
Grace finds this advice particularly applicable for those “crunch-time” work situations:
If you have a big deadline to make, as an example, consider what is most probably in your hands: where you decide to work on the assignment, when you decide to do the assignment, whether to have a mobile phone around, whether to surf the web, and the option to use caffeine [she highly recommends coffee!]. But, how your boss reacts to your report is contingent upon too many arbitrary matters you do not have complete control over. Certain people prefer certain styles of writing and authors. Optimize your capabilities to promote the most desired outcome, and to make it a healthy transaction, so to speak, for everyone.
From my interview with Grace, I learned an important lesson for living. Some things we have control over, and some we do not. In making this distinction, a redefined sense of control can be empowering, allowing us to maximize our efforts and drop the futile concerns of changing the uncontrollable in a situation.
It is an enormous pleasure to devote a post to a conversation with author and advocate Ashton Applewhite. Her new book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism, was just published to great acclaim. Cultural critic Katha Pollitt captured what all the critics are saying: “Vibrant, energetic, fact-filled and funny, This Chair Rocks is a call to arms not just for older people but for our whole society.”
We joined Ashton for a fascinating dialogue about where the book came from, and where she’s going next in her work to combat ageism. To learn more, check out the video at the end!
Thanks for joining us here at the Legacy Project! Let’s begin with a background question. You want to reframe the way American culture sees age and aging. What got you started on this path?
About eight years ago I began interviewing people over 80 for a project called “So when are you going to retire?” and reading about longevity. It didn’t take long to realize that almost everything I thought I knew about aging was wrong. I had no idea that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives, for example. That the vast majority of Americans over 65 live independently. The older people get, the less afraid they are of dying. Why don’t more people know this stuff? Because we live in a culture that drowns out all but the negative about growing old, or even just aging past youth. Why is that? Because social and economic forces frame aging as a problem, so they can sell us remedies to “fix” or “stop” or “cure” it. Aging is a natural, lifelong, profoundly enriching process—experience tells us so. Aging means living, which is why it’s so damn interesting. And to paraphrase British journalist Anne Karpf, it makes no more sense to be anti-aging than anti-breathing.
How did arrive at the arresting design on your book cover?
We gave brilliant designer and friend Rebeca Mendez a tough commission: come up with a cover that feels warm and human but also sharply political. And will jump out at readers from a crowded bookstore window. She was scratching her head until my partner suggested that the epigraph of the book might serve as inspiration. It’s a quote by the wonderful writer Anne Lamott: “We contain all the ages we have ever been.” Rebeca’s painting beautifully captures that idea.
An ageist society aspires to “agelessness,” an artificial and unattainable goal that strips us of our years. I love the way the cover represents the opposite, which I call “agefulness”— a rich accretion of all the things we’ve done and been, stored within our bones and brains, that makes us who we are.
If you could banish one stereotype about aging, what would it be?
The notion that older people are alike! It’s why people think everyone in a retirement home is the same age—“old”—even though residents can span four decades. (Can you imagine thinking that way about a group of 20- to 60-year-olds?) It’s why the last box on those marketing checklists – you know, 18-26, 27-39, etc., end at 65+—as though everyone over 65 buys the same stuff and does the same things.
Stereotyping—the assumption that all members of a group are the same— underlies all the “isms.” It’s always a mistake, but especially when it comes to age, because as the years pass, of course we grow more different from one another. It’s why geriatricians say: “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.” We all age at different rates —mentally, physically, and socially—which is why there’s no such thing as “acting your age.” Chronological age tells you almost nothing about an individual—not what they’re listening to or who they’re voting for or where they’re headed—and the older the person, the less reliable an indicator it becomes.
You make a case for an anti-ageism campaign as a public health initiative. Tell us about that.
A growing body of evidence shows that attitudes towards aging have an actual, measurable, physical effect on how we age. There’s no inherent reason for the effect to be negative. But an ageist culture tells us that wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old. When we assimilate these stereotypes, they become part of our identity, and this influences how our brains and bodies function.
In one experiment, social scientists primed a group of college students with negative age stereotypes—words like “forgetful,” “Florida,” and “bingo”—that they flashed on a screen too briefly for the subjects to become aware of them. The students then walked to the elevator measurably more slowly than a control group! Imagine the effect on older people for whom the terms are more relevant, and thus more likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies.
People with more positive feelings about aging behave differently from those convinced that growing old means becoming irrelevant or pathetic. They do better on memory tests and have better handwriting. They can walk faster and are more likely to recover fully from severe disability. And they actually live longer—an average of seven and a half years. Everyone agrees that health has the biggest effect on how we age—and how much it costs. So think what a national anti-ageism campaign would do to extend not just the lifespan but the “healthspan” of all Americans.
Why do so many of us have such a hard time actually admitting our age…saying it out loud?
You’d have to live in a cave to miss the messages all around us that old=bad, and that aging is to be feared and avoided by any means necessary. No wonder so many of us are reluctant to part with the equivalent of a cultural “sell-by” date! It’s an understandable strategy. Attempting to “pass” for younger, the way people of color have passed for white and gay people for straight, is a way to avoid being discriminated against. But “passing” takes a psychological toll, because it’s rooted in denial and distaste, even disgust. We’re reluctant to divulge our age because we’ve internalized the profoundly ageist notion that our older self is inferior to our younger one.
Do you honestly think that the person you are now has less to offer than the twenty- or thirty-something you once did? That you’re less interesting now? Less valuable? How about less attractive? If that gets a nod, consider the industries that make billions by commodifying our dissatisfaction with our bodies—especially women’s. Who gets to decide that wrinkles are ugly? It’s time to look more generously at ourselves, the way the body-acceptance movement urges, and to stop colluding in devaluing ourselves as older women.
When we claim our age, the number loses its power over us. It’s a little like a spell breaking. We can’t stop aging, even if we wanted to, but we can change the way we feel about it—the first step in any revolution. Then we can start to see where those ageist messages come from, and work together to challenge the structures that benefit from them.
Why do you dislike the term “successful aging?”
Terms like “successful aging” and “productive aging” and “active aging” are popular, and provide an upbeat counterpoint to the standard narrative of aging-as-decline. They’re seductive, because we really, really want to think we can keep doing the things we love for as long as we live. We often can—versions of them, that is—especially if we have access to healthcare, and exercise, and eat well. But the goalposts shift. In addition to taking care of ourselves, we’d do well to decouple self-worth from longstanding measures of earning power or physical prowess. Much is not under our control, and making the necessary supports available to all older Americans will require implementation at the policy level.
It’s important to keep in mind that many of the resources that help us “age well” are predominantly available to the lucky and reasonably well off. Sanitized or romanticized exemplars of “successful aging”—those silver-maned couples waltzing on the foredeck of a cruise ship—set an unreasonable standard and suggest that less “successful” agers are responsible for their circumstances. Everyone can make sensible choices, but barriers like heavy caregiving responsibilities, inadequate health care, and neighborhoods with few resources make it more difficult. Blaming the poor for “bad choices” makes aging another arena in which we succeed or fail based on terms that are far from neutral. There’s a lot of harsh judgment of olders who aren’t physically mobile or conventionally economically productive, and that’s not OK. All aging is successful—not just the sporty version—otherwise you’re dead.
Are olders really as much of an economic drag on society as the media portrays?
Absolutely not! People 50 and up fuel the significant, fast-growing, and often-overlooked “longevity economy,” which according to AARP accounted for 46 percent of US gross domestic product ($7.1 trillion) in 2012. By 2021 the 50-plus age group is projected to drive more than half of US economic activity, as their spending fuels industries that include apparel, health care, education and entertainment. These statistics capture only part of the economic contribution of older Americans, whose unpaid volunteer work in 2013 was valued at $67 billion. And while “entrepreneur” might conjure up an image of a kid in that proverbial garage, twice as many successful American entrepreneurs are over age 20 as in their early 20s.. More resources have always flowed from older generations to younger ones than the reverse.
This is despite widespread age discrimination in employment, which prevents older workers from finding challenging work of which they’re eminently capable, and relegates them to jobs that don’t take advantage of their skills and experience—Wal-Mart greeters, say. It also makes it harder for them to find part-time and volunteer positions. Discouraged and diminished, many become economically dependent, contributing to the misperception that olders are a net burden to society, but it’s not by choice.
Society has grown far less tolerant of sexism and racism. Why do ageist attitudes and behaviors still get a pass?
That’s what I’d like to know! Can you imagine anyone (not counting Donald Trump) complacently identifying himself as sexist or racist? Yet no one even blinks when older people are described as incompetent, or boring, or even repulsive. (And most people are unaware that younger people also face age bias.) Older people can be the most prejudiced of all, having had a lifetime to internalize negative myths and stereotypes that have gone unquestioned—until now. Diversity became a buzzword because society grew less tolerant of racism and sexism and homophobia. We want different faces around the table because we don’t think access to opportunity should depend on what someone looks like. Graying hair and wrinkles count. It is high time to make the last socially sanctioned prejudice as unacceptable as any other kind.
If that seems like a tall order, look at how much has shifted in how we look at gender, and how rapidly. It used to be viewed as a rigid binary, male or female, but we now understand that it’s far more fluid. If gender can be conceived of this way, why on earth not age, which is inherently, obviously, a continuum? Why not shake off our fear of being on the “wrong” side of some imaginary old/young divide and embrace a more flexible, friendly, and far more rational view of age?
You call yourself an Old Person in Training. Why?
I’m 63. I know I’m not young, I don’t see myself as old, and I know a lot of people feel the same way. We spend a lot of energy pretending that the old are somehow not us—not even future us—and that we’ll somehow never get old. Even though it’s irrational. Even though we’re doomed to fail. Even though it fills us with needless dread. Even though that denial is where ageism takes root. That’s why I’ve become an old person in training, a phrase I appropriated from geriatrician Joanne Lynn.
Becoming an Old Person in Training bridges that divide between our younger and older selves, and connects them empathically. It acknowledges the inevitability of growing old while relegating it to the future, albeit at an ever-smaller remove. It swaps purpose and intent for dread and denial. It’s a relief. It feels right and it makes sense..
What’s does becoming an Old Person in Training involve? It means looking at older people instead of past them, remembering they were once our age, seeing resilience alongside infirmity, allowing for sensuality, enlarging our notion of beauty, and acknowledging that an apartment, or a room or even just a bed can be home to an internal world as rich as ours—and very possibly richer. It means thoughtful peeks through the periscope of an open mind at the terrain we’ll inhabit when we are finally old. I see the ninety-year-old me as withered and teetery, but also curious and content. Envisioning her won’t make it happen, but the aspiration will surely help. The consensus from people over eighty, who should know, is that young people worry way too much about getting old. So the earlier we make this imaginative leap, the better—and the better equipped we’ll be to benefit from the journey.
You’d like your book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, to help catalyze a mass movement against ageism, the way Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring catalyzed the environmental movement. What kind of actions would you like to see?
My book lays out a blueprint in every domain. Change starts between our ears, with the difficult task of unlearning beliefs we’ve held all our lives. Some places to start:
- Look for ways in which you’re ageist instead of looking for evidence that you aren’t. You can’t challenge bias unless you’re aware of it, and everyone’s biased some of the time.
- Talk to people significantly older and younger than you, and listen carefully. If you don’t know many of them, seek them out.
- The next time you wonder whether an outing or an outfit or an attitude is age-appropriate, reconsider the question. There’s no such thing.
Change ripples outward when we point out ageist behaviors and beliefs in the world around us. Some places to start:
- Train yourself to notice when everyone in a group is the same age, and unless there’s some legitimate reason, speak up about it.
- Assume capacity, not incapacity. Don’t assume someone is too old—or too young—to weigh in on a topic or take on a responsibility.
- If you’re on the receiving end of an ageist comment, ask gently, “Why would you say [or think] that?” Then just be quiet.
- If you’re feeling ambitious, start a consciousness-raising group around age bias. This powerful tool catalyzed the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s. You can download my guide, Who Me, Ageist?,
Changing the culture is a tall order, but look at how women’s roles have changed in a single generation, and at the amazing progress we’ve made in this century alone against homophobia and transphobia.
If this new radical age movement had a slogan, what would you like it to be?
Age pride! Age pride is for dissed teenagers and dismissed olders and everyone in between. Age pride is for Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, who said, “We must be proud of our age” and who, if she’d lived long enough, would have beaten me to “Occupy age!”—my other favorite slogan. If marriage equality is here to stay, why not age equality? If gay pride has gone mainstream, and millions of Americans now take pride in identifying as disabled, why not age pride? The only reason that idea sounds outlandish is because this is the first time you’ve encountered it. It won’t be the last. Longevity is here to stay. Everyone is aging. Dismantling ageism benefits us all.
Bonus video: I’ve figured out what to call ourselves.