At a workshop I led, a woman reported that her daughter hoped she would learn finally to act her age. The group’s answer? “Never!”
Ever-increasing longevity means our society has an uncertain relationship with its growing group of elders. Messages extolling us to act our age are everywhere. Do any of these sound familiar? “You are too old to go back to school.” “You should stop doing so much and slow down.” “At your age, you should retire and spend more time with your grandchildren.” “You are too old to take a new job.” And, of course, “you’re too old to wear that color, style, or…”
Whether overt or subtle, we hear plenty of examples of cultural ageism, first defined in 1969 by gerontologist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Dr. Robert Butler as “a deep-seated uneasiness on the part of the young and middle-aged—a personal revulsion to, and distaste for, growing old, disease, disability, and fear of powerlessness, ‘uselessness’ and death.” As cultural norms have shifted, it has been said that ageism is the only acceptable “ism” left.
Interestingly, society’s youth-oriented culture appears to make allowances for certain groups. Consider that nearly half of U.S. senators up for re-election in 2018 are 65 or older. But for most of us, once we cross an arbitrary age line, we often are deemed to be “less than.” We know it because we are reminded of our downhill decline through the “shoulds” and “oughts” assigned to those of a certain age based on others’ expectations and their perceptions of what it means to be old. Of course, no one, not even those who offer such advice, knows just what “act your age” means. There is no Dr. Spock to illuminate how people who are 55, 65, 80, or even 90 should behave.
Almost more disturbing is how almost all of us—old and young alike—are prejudiced against older people, as Ashton Applewhite suggests in her book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. She believes that ageism is woven into the fabric of life, reinforced by the media and popular culture.
I believe, however, that we are on the cusp of a cultural shift in our attitude toward aging. I am also encouraged by research affirming that today’s elders are healthier, happier, and more engaged than ever before.
So how do we get rid of the “oughts” and “shoulds”? Let’s begin by casting out our own aging biases. Embrace lifelong learning. Get involved. Model for others how age 50, 65, 75, or 90 is for you. Finally, silence your own voice of judgment when it reminds you of society’s shoulds and oughts.
In a Family Circus cartoon, Jeffy recalls, “Grandma always says, ‘well, in my day….’” He then asks, “Isn’t this still her day?” And we say—absolutely!
Linda Henry writes regularly on topics related to aging, health care and communication and is the co-author of several books, including Transformational Eldercare from the Inside Out; Strengths-Based Strategies for Caring. She conducts workshops nationally on aging and creating caring work environments. Her volunteer emphasis is age-friendly communities.