Contrary to popular belief, life as an older person is neither dull nor uneventful. We have experienced many things but have yet to see or hear it all.
A few years ago, my husband and I visited New York. We were in the process of checking into the hotel when our daughter arrived to greet us. The hotel clerk immediately shifted his attention to her. He explained how the elevator worked, how we could access hotel amenities, gave her the room keys and wished her a pleasant stay. In less than five minutes, blatant ageism had rendered my husband and me invisible, mute and incapacitated by age. Although we have endured strangers calling us dear, darling and sweetie in loud voices, the hotel episode left us stunned.
In his article “Ageism: I hope I (don’t) die before I get old,” Dan Levitt, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, defines ageism as “the stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups based on their age.” Ageist attitudes result not only in individual discrimination but they can also be found at the core of the design and implementation of services, programs and facilities for the elderly.
Lillian Zimmerman, in her 2016 book Did You Just Call Me an Old Lady?, takes a two-pronged approach to aging. First, she examines how medical interventions, technology and social programs have improved the quality of life for older people. Second, she cleverly unmasks the difficulties faced by an aging population living in a youth-obsessed culture and how these obstacles are reinforced and perpetuated.
Currently, the over-65 age groups are the fastest-growing population segments in Canada. The press has dubbed this “the Grey Tsunami.” Although many components are involved in reinforcing ageism and ageist attitudes, Zimmerman identifies language as one of the main preservers.
“Words are among the most insidious communication devices contributing to ageist attitude formation – tsunamis are catastrophes that bring death and destruction,” she writes. “As a metaphor for aging, it is simply not acceptable. We are now responsive and sensitive to demeaning and derogatory language. We need to take ageism out from the closet and ‘out it’ for what it is: a general dislike of older people. The list of unacceptable social attitudes should now read racism, sexism and ageism.”
Having a keen sense of humour is a highly desired quality. Throughout history, we have employed humour as a coping mechanism, a stress reliever and a route to gain social advantages. It is also used as a tool to manufacture “others,” and for them to appear less worthy and less capable. These jokes, whether narratives, cartoons or greetings, can be extremely hurtful and insulting. If heard often enough, they will become “alternative facts” and have the capacity to further cement negative stereotypes. Zimmerman cites a study of more than 4,000 jokes that found many in which older people were depicted as incompetent, forgetful, sexually frustrated, impotent males and infirm. As previously mentioned, ageism has not until recently been openly examined, so it is possible that the “jokesters” are not aware of imbedded ageist content.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission, in its research document Ageism and Age Discrimination, states that the first step to combat this derogatory ism is to “raise public awareness about its existence and to dispel common stereotypes and misperceptions about aging.”
Levitt concurs and goes a step further by citing a Slovenian project that has already been operationalized: “The Simbioza project’s goal is to improve e-literacy in seniors by young people volunteering to teach computer skills. Such a program is a win-win situation, as it puts technology in the hands of the elderly and instils social responsibility in the millennials.”
To quote Bob Dylan, “but times are a-changin’.” There is hope for the future. Through raising awareness of ageism and refusing to accept ageist discourse, the grips are loosened. The Ontario Human Rights research paper states, “The Supreme Court of Canada has made it clear that it is no longer acceptable to structure systems in a way that assumes that everyone is young and then try to accommodate those who do not fit this assumption. Rather, age diversity that exists in society should be reflected in design stages for policies, programs, services, facilities so that physical, attitudinal and systemic barriers are not created.”
Rita Roling is an executive of Jewish Seniors Alliance and a member of JSA’s Senior Line editorial committee. This article was originally published, as “We will not go quietly into the night,” in Senior Line, vol. 24 (2), which can be downloaded at jsalliance.org.