By Alice Fisher, M.A., M.S.W.
“I was participating in a focus group discussion about aging. During the conversation someone states: ‘I don’t know how you can change an entire culture.’ My gut reaction is “With a movement; it’s the only way we’ve ever accomplished cultural change in America.” With that, The RadicalAgeMovement was conceived.
Let’s Talk About Ageism
“Thus Carol hit upon the tragedy of old age, which is not that it is less vigorous than youth, but that it is not needed by youth…”
― Sinclair Lewis
Never before have old people been as segregated from main stream society than they are now. Today, older adults are disregarded, marginalized, and isolated. Instead of being seen as one with all humanity, we are seen as “the other”. In our youth-obsessed culture, to be old is to be irrelevant. Prejudice against old people is the last acceptable “ism” that needs to be addressed. The irony is that if we are fortunate, it is a prejudice that everyone will have to face. Ageism knows no boundaries; not race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or economic status. For some, this is not the only prejudice they’ve known in their lives; while for others it is their first encounter with
The more that older people are exposed to negative images of aging, the more likely they are to internalize those messages. Becca Levy, researcher and professor at Yale University, has demonstrated that people exposed to negative images of aging die approximately 7 years earlier than people who are exposed to positive images of aging. Yes, ageism kills!
While working as a government liaison to older adults in the office of NYS
Senator Liz Krueger, I was confronted daily by stories from older adults who were in jeopardy of losing their homes, living with food insecurity, and unable to navigate the government systems that are crucial to access in order to get the assistance they need. Many of these constituents were wandering the city in some stage of dementia with no support network, while there is a waiting list of over 1,000 people waiting for case management. Because of the high price of pharmaceuticals, so many of our older neighbors must chose between paying the rent, eating, and accessing the prescription drugs they need to keep them healthy Trying desperately to keep some quality of life when Social Security is woefully inadequate to meet their costs of living, they are trying to balance their lives on the head of a pin.
Our government on all levels, city, state, and federal, allots the smallest percentage of their budgets to provide service to older adults. In New York City, where people over 65 make up almost 20 per cent of the population, the City budget allocates less than ½ of 1 percent of the human resources budget to senior services.
Younger seniors and leading-edge boomers are desperately looking for jobs in an era when age discrimination in the workforce is rampant. In effect, older workers have had the workforce turn it’s back on them at a time when longevity is on the rise. We are not only living longer we are staying healthy longer. We are not prepared to be “retired” for 30 or 40 years. Not only don’t we want to retire, we cannot afford to. Instead of facing a secure future, we are threatened with the reality of living our final years in poverty.
Finally, there is the issue of caregiving support for the frailest among us. We live in a country with no universal long term care policy. Anyone who is responsible for the care of the elderly knows the shock of the inadequacy of our caregiving systems.
The first step on the journey to Age Justice is to create awareness of all the above. Ageism is so endemic to our society, even people who are the victims of this cruel prejudice often don’t see it. They blame themselves for being “old”. Yet, ageism perpetrated against older adults effects us all.
A Little About Longevity and The Lifespan
“Everyone wants to live forever, but nobody wants to grow old.”
The lifespan is not a fixed concept. It is a flexible ever-changing theory. The driver behind today’s changing lifespan is longevity. Although affected by socioeconomic status, many of us are living longer lives than ever before in history. Add to this the fact that we are actually staying healthy longer. The extra years of life, however, are not tacked on to the end of our lives. We have opened up a new stage of life along the lifespan. In today’s society when so many of us are living into our 90s and 100s, we cannot ascribe everyone who is over 65 to the same “senior” category. We would never say that everyone between 30-65 is in the same stage of life, so why would we ever assume that people between 65- 100 share the same life attributes.
Everywhere we turn, age 65 seems to be acknowledged as the end of living a relevant life. Ever fill out one of those surveys that wants to determine your age category? It usually goes like this: 20-30 30-45, 45-55, 55-65, and over 65. That’s it. At 65 an active life seems to come to an end. We all know that this is not the case. However, our government and institutions seem to have missed this point. Looking ahead is not their forte. Let’s face it, government is never proactive; it is only reactive. The stop sign on the corner only goes up after the fatalities have occurred.
Remind them that we are part of the future too!
“I think that ageism is a cultural illness; it’s not a personal illness.”
We are constantly bombarded by messages that say “young is good” and “old is bad”. So much of this comes from the media. We are offered creams and pills that are “guaranteed” to make us look 10 years younger. In an effort to identify aging, Americans gobble up this snake oil.
Signs of ageism often appear in news articles; i.e. “Old man, 62, hit by bus.”
Young people also internalize these messages. Fear of getting old drives them to dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons as soon as a line appears on their faces. If they look old, they become fearful that they will lose their jobs… or, even worse, become invisible themselves.
Be proud of your age. Don’t hide it.
It Takes a Movement
“A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
How can a movement change a culture that is so embedded in our society?
Because ageism is not taken seriously like racism or anti-Semitism, etc., even those who are victims of this cruel prejudice often don’t recognize it. Some of us at TheRadicalAgeMovement have labeled ageism the “powder puff ism.” If you accuse someone of making a racist or anti-Semitic statement, you will most likely be confronted with fierce denial. If you accuse the same person of making an ageist statement, the response will more likely be “Really? I’ll have to think about that.” One of the tasks of this Movement is to prove that ageism is as serious as racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, ableism, and sexism. In order to do this, we have to make noise.
One of the many lessons I learned working for the government is that legislators, whether they be in the city, state or federal government, cannot do their job if the people on the street don’t make noise. It means something when they can persuade a colleague to take an appropriate stand by dumping a thousand constituent letters on their colleague’s desk with the admonition “this is what’s happening in MY community!”
However, not all problems can be solved by legislation. Culture change can only come about when the minds and hearts of the people shift. This needs to come first before any kind of institutional change can come about. The public needs to understand that above all, ageism is a human rights issue.
Finally, TheRadicalAgeMovement is a multi-cultural, Intergenerational effort. When young people exhibit prejudice against older people, they are setting up a prejudice against their future selves. We need each other, young and old alike, to create the kind of society that works for all of us.
Our goal is to create a multi-cultural, intergenerational movement that says enough is enough. Young and old together have to do this. Believe me, “You Will Thank Us”!
This article was originally published in the Quarterly Journal of The Life Planning Network, Volume 5, Issue 2.