Here’s one more “ism” to put behind us

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Laurie Petrie with a Council on Aging client
COA's VP of Communications, Laurie Petrie, with a Council on Aging client

I was shopping for sunscreen the other day, when I came across the NotYourMother’s brand.  I felt a familiar twinge of annoyance at the name’s slight on seniors.  Heaven forbid that you should use a product your mother would use. After all, she’s old.  And old means irrelevant and out-of-touch, right?

Oh well, so what? After all, there’s Not Your Daughter’s jeans. I need to lighten up.

But take a look at the store’s greeting card section.  That’s where birthday cards portray older people as angelic, witless or bizarre.  

These examples from the grocery store are nothing compared with, say, age discrimination in the workplace. And don’t get me wrong. A sense of humor is essential for any of us who happen to be aging.

But ageism – the negative stereotyping of older people – remains pervasive to a degree that is unacceptable for other groups such as women or racial minorities. Like racism and sexism, ageism - wherever it appears - has insidious effects that hold us back as a society and even poison people into questioning their own worth. 

A 2002 study by, among others, Suzanne Kunkel of Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University, found that “older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.”

In other words, if you believe and internalize all the negative stereotypes about aging, you will probably shorten your life.

Like all stereotyping, ageism keeps us from facing and acting on the truth:  that older people make up a dramatically diverse segment of our population whose rapid growth presents us with enormous opportunities and challenges. To demean aging, including our own, is perilous.

The month of May is designated as a time to take stock of this reality. May is national Older Americans Month, a time to celebrate the lives and contributions of older adults, as well as those who serve and care for them.  In Ohio, the theme for 2016 is “Aging. It’s Everybody’s Business!”

The Ohio Department of Aging has expanded on the theme with a set of pledges.  Pledge number one is:  “I pledge to challenge ageist views and negative stereotypes about aging wherever I see them.” 

As I thought about this first pledge, it seemed to me that all the others flowed from it:

  • I pledge to make lifestyle changes that will decrease the likelihood of chronic disease and injury as I age;
  • I pledge to help others understand that aging has both challenges and benefits at every stage of life;
  • I pledge to remember that all Ohioans deserve opportunities to grow, thrive and contribute throughout their lifespans; and
  • I pledge to make aging my business and challenge my community leaders, business owners, co-workers, family and friends to make aging their business, too!

These pledges are all about putting an end to the negativity that too often characterizes attitudes about aging.  They’re about understanding aging as it is: a reality that cannot be denied, but can be embraced and prepared for in a positive way.

If we deny our aging, we may continue with behaviors (smoking, over-eating, not exercising) that will eventually diminish our health and quality of life. We might also put off planning for the care we are likely to need at some point, which only means we will face fewer options, place unnecessary stress on our families and strain on our finances. 

For society as a whole, negativity and ageist stereotypes blind us to the creativity and contributions of older people. They blind us to the opportunities presented by the aging of our population: opportunities to create more humane, diverse, and accommodating communities; to build a better health care system; and to better support family caregivers, to name a few.

Like all our other “ism” struggles, ageism may never truly die, but we need to leave it behind us as we respond positively and creatively to aging.

See the Ohio Department of Aging’s Well Beyond 60! initiative for health tips and resources. Follow the "Aging. It's Everybody's Business" campaign on the Ohio Department of Aging's website.  Visit Council on Aging’s website for information and connection to community resources for older adults, caregivers and professionals who work with them.      

Laurie Petrie
Vice President of Communications, Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio