Why Ageism is the Powder Puff “Ism” and What You Can Do to Change That

If a person makes an ageist statement and you say “you know that what you just said is an ageist remark”, it is not uncommon for that person to respond, “Really?  I’ll have to think about that”.  Yet, if that same person makes a racist or anti-Semitic remark and you call them on it, you’re likely to be met with fear, defensiveness or anger—or all three.  “Who me?  How can you call me a racist! I mean, I would never…I meant to say…”

Powder Puff PhotoAh, but ageism…now that’s an ism to, um, well, ponder calmly, lightly, to think about it with all the weight a woman uses to powder puff her nose. What so many people do not understand is that ageism kills.

People who are subjected to age discrimination can die as much as 7 years earlier than people who experience positive messages about aging.  And, like other, recognized forms of abuse and violence, ageism—social oppression wrought by being perceived as a “problem” by being “old”- is a direct cause of elder abuse (which is on the rise).

On August 22, we participated in an anti-Trump march and demonstration and were impressed with all of the chants that we heard as we walked.  One of the chants was “Black Lives Matter”.  We thought, what a great chant—a mix of sorrow that anyone could think they didn’t matter, and righteous anger that Black people will not be denied their rightful place in our society. We recognized that RAM needs a sorrowful, righteously angry slogan, too! After all, look what’s going on:  This administration is extremely ageist and is out to get us however they can.  Social Security.  Medicare.  Medicaid.  All of these programs are endangered.  The man in the White House also signed a regulation recently stating that people who are abused in a nursing facility cannot sue the facility.  This is another way of suffocating old people’s voices.

Don’t kid yourself, there is a war against old people.  Here at The Radical Age Movement, we see ageism as connected to almost all other forms of social oppression and escalating inequality: a women’s issue, a healthcare issue, a food security issue, a racial issue, an affordable housing issue, an LGBTQ issue, a transportation issue, a quality-of-life issue, and, most importantly, a human rights issue.

Because of the turn of events in our government, RAM has been joining groups that are advocating for all of these issues to show our support while bringing our age prejudice issues to the table.  It’s time for ageism to have a voice of its own.  This is an issue that belongs up there in the fight for social justice alongside racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, to name a few. No matter our different social identities, we’re all lucky if we get to be old. Once we arrive, it shouldn’t feel unlucky to be there.

Now, we’re sure you are thinking, “How do we change the ageist mindset that’s ingrained in our culture and internalized in most of us?”  There is only one way.  With a movement.  The only way we have ever made lasting social, economic and cultural change in our society is through social movements. We still have our challenges, but nobody can say that the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Movement or the Gay Rights Movement and the Labor Movement have not left their imprint on our society. Before those powerful movements, there were the Anti-Slavery movements, the Women’s Suffrage movements, the Workingmen’s Associations, and Anti-War movements. Those movements took years to succeed, but they all began with a mix of anger at injustice directed at themselves and a hopeful belief that through their efforts that injustice could end — the world would become a more fair, equitable and safer place, for people of color, women, and LGBT folks.  Recent events, whether Charlottesville, Orlando, or the Stanford campus, make clear that eternal vigilance is needed from such movements to keep our society from rolling back such victories, yet victories did occur.

Lately, we’ve been thinking about why some social justice movements succeed, while others do not.  In reading an article, “Why Don’t More People Join Social Justice Movements?” it makes clear that “caring” about an issue is only one part of the picture. The Radical Age Movement has been an all-volunteer movement so far.  This puts us at a disadvantage from movements or causes that have a mix of paid and volunteer activist — whether it was the labor organizers of the 30’s or the church-based leaders of the civil rights movements. Organizations led only by volunteer efforts just don’t have the same resources.  Lacking the funds and/or full-time paid support through organizations, we here at RAM struggle with this this issue everyday. Yet we know that so many people are passionate about our cause!  Funders love what we are doing but are not willing to fund something that is purely advocacy without direct service attached.  They also shy away from funding any kind of advocacy for “old” people. It’s ironic that foundations themselves are ageist in the way they treat senior advocacy—after all, their numbers are filled with people who someday are going to be –or already are—old!

Of course, one of the best qualities of grass roots activists who are passionate about a cause is that overwhelmingly they are not motivated simply by financial self-interest. Therein lies the conundrum of social activism.  Grass roots volunteers have the passion but lack the resources to engage fully enough with time and money to help inspire others into action.  The professionals, who themselves are often pulled in many directions due to funding restrictions, have more resources; but they are too reliant on unending service requirements that undercuts their involvement with grassroots activists. 

We started out to build a movement, and it didn’t take long to determine that while we were building a movement, we also have had to work toward building a more professionally funded organization   We needed to position RAM to be an organization worthy of foundation and/or government grants if we were going to be sustainable.  We learned from the Occupy Movement that not having a clear vision that combined a powerful social vision and a workable, accountable structure could not support either leadership change or social policy reform through the sustained, long-term efforts we have witnessed from other successful social movements.

RAM seeks to be a social movement for age justice that transforms both social policy needed for all older people to live with respect and dignity and the rampant cultural norms throughout society (and within ourselves) that equates “old” with “less than.” We invite you to join us with your time, skill sets and whatever dollars — from a little to a lot— so that age justice is not something people care about with the indifferent caress of a powder puff but the fierce determination of a righteous cause.  Join RAM fully today! Let’s make history together!!

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Alice Fisher, M.A., M.S.W.  is the founder of The Radical Age Movement which is dedicated to confronting and eliminating the ageism that permeates our society.  This new movement also seeks to change the way older adults are perceived and treated in society, and the implications this has for social practices and government policy.

Prior to founding TheRadicalAgeMovement, Alice worked in the office of New York State Senator Liz Krueger, where she developed and oversaw “Senator Liz Krueger’s Roundtable for Boomers & Seniors” and counseled the Senator’s senior constituents on issues of housing, healthcare, quality-of-life, and end-of-life. This experience provided Alice with an inside view of the struggles and anxieties of the older adults who live in the district and the role that ageism plays in amplifying these issues.  She also sees the prejudice against older adults in government policy when attempting to develop a legislative agenda that seeks to help the most vulnerable among us.   A long time social justice advocate, Alice is also developing anti-ageism programs devoted to transforming attitudes about age in our youth-oriented society.

Alice currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Social Service Board at the NY Society for Ethical Culture and is a member of the Age Friendly NY Media, Arts, & Culture Committee.  Alice received her M.A. from the CUNY Graduate Center where her focus was in sociology.  She also holds an M.S.W. from the Hunter School of Social Work, CUNY, where her focus was on community organizing.  Alice is 72 years old and lives in Jackson Heights with her husband, Jon, and their two golden doodles.  She is a mother and grandmother.

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Steve Burghardt, Ph.D. is professor of social work at the CUNY Silberman School of Social Work.  He is a community organizer, consultant and coach to agencies and community groups across New York City.  Steve is a founding member of The Radical Age Movement and is a member of RAM’s steering committee, and convenes our Age Action committee. 

Steve is an eight-time winner of teaching awards and a recognized expert on transformative models of leadership, community organizing and planning methods, and Freirian methods of teaching and staff development.   Skilled facilitator in inter-group dynamics for over 30 years, he has consulted extensively with executive on long-term leadership dynamics, social group tensions in agencies and programs and training needs of the workplace. 

As a professor at CUNY’s Silberman School of Social Work, he has taught courses on community organizing and planning, multi-method practice with an anti-oppression lens, political economy of social welfare, policy and planning, and theories of social change. His most recent publications range from the textbook Macro Practice n Social Work for the 21st Century:  Bridging the Macro-Micro Divide (Sage Publications, 2013) to “By the End of The Term, You Will Have Gained Power in the Classroom and I Will Have Lost None: The Pedagogical Value of Discomfort & Vulnerability in the Teaching of Community Practice,” to appear in Pyles & Adams’s Holistic Engagement: Transformative Social Work Education in the 21st Century (Camdrdge University Press, 2016).

Steve is 72 years old and lives in Manhattan with his wife, Pat.  He is a father and grandfather.

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