Is it ageism — on my part — to be so scared of getting/looking/acting old?
I’m thinking it is. I’m thinking that since most ism’s — racism, sexism, classism— have their basis in someone’s fear of either “the other” or a loss of relative power, or both, ageism must derive from fear as well. And let me name just a few of the fears that come to mind: becoming obsolete and invisible; being dismissed as inconsequential; being defined by age alone; frail and failing health; loss of mental acuity; loss of control over where you live or if you drive or when and what you eat; restricted activity; loss of loved ones; financial insecurity; disengagement from culture and community; loss of joy. Lots of losses there. Take note. Lots to fear.
So, when I compliment a friend’s new ring and she admits how much she likes it and how happy she is to have it and, in the next breath says it will go to the daughter who shares her birthstone, I cringe. Am I supposed to be there with her, at 65, thinking about deaccessioning even a gift I just received? Thinking more about the end game than the present? Am I, with my friends, inevitably and inexorably becoming the caricature I prejudicially loathe? I resent my friend’s train of thought (which may, I concede, be perfectly realistic). That’s ageism.
The same feelings arise when we as women laugh self-deprecatingly at the momentary “loss” of the names of people we know and items we use and words that say precisely what we mean to say, recognizing this is generally thought to be a benign and common (and sometimes reversible) development in our demographic cohort. I reject the assumption that our minds simply don’t work so well anymore and that that’s OK. I reject, again, the inevitability and inexorability of it all. I resent the possibility that I am one of “them.” I am being ageist.
It’s ageism when I impatiently brush past people on walkers clogging the aisles of my grocery store, or toot my horn at the little old lady driving so painfully slowly through the post office parking lot, or when I’m disappointed there are no younger voices at the table to offer new ideas or different perspectives, or when I quit a volunteer assignment because none of the older volunteers can countenance any change at all. It’s ageism because I am afraid of what I might become.
My ageism lives somewhere between denial and enlightened acceptance of aging itself. It has arrived at that fork in the road where you can move on to make new and different contributions — or you can move out to pasture. It shows up randomly, as when all the tennis commentators at the Australian Open are my age (Chrissie Everett, John McEnroe) and talk more about when they were champions than the game at hand (Get over it already. Move on.) and I wish (1) the network would hire new analysts and (2) I could still play tennis.
I find myself hoping my prejudice is not about aging itself, though I admit to being haunted by the losses part and I only reluctantly accept as true the biological imperative that wears our bodies down and out over time. I also hope it is not born of some sixties-era exceptionalism which posits that I will age exceedingly well which is, according to Atul Gawande, statistically very unlikely.
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What I’m counting on is using my ageism as an impetus to change those things in myself that are driving me mad in others today, without taking it out on the others. For example, to live very, very intentionally in the present (which has the added benefit of reminding me I am not yet 80 or 85). To exercise daily for mental acuity and physical strength and balance. To proactively avoid becoming that little old lady caricature: to use Uber, for example (or whatever it becomes in 10 or 15 years), to get around if I need to. To read more widely, seek out and sincerely entertain different ideas and perspectives, keep my mind open to radical possibilities of what I still might do (and I don’t mean sky-diving), nurture my relationships, and remain accountable to my truest, most ageless self. I’m not willing to be resigned to obsolescence like the woman who sighed loudly during a discussion of racism on Martin Luther King Day, “Well maybe we’ve done all we can do and the younger generation can take over now.” I’m not done yet. And I hope I’m not acting or thinking or feeling so old as to suggest that I am.
by Ann Sentilles
January 27th, 2015