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Ageism: Women are never too old to experience it

By: Connie Woodring

This article focuses on ageism and its effects on women and society.

Women over 40 typically concern themselves with menopause, mid-life crises, caring for their elderly parents and perhaps face lifts.  Ageism and becoming old and vulnerable are not popular worries.  Let’s explore why.

When my husband turned 68, his mother sent him a birthday card with a picture of an elderly woman holding an electric guitar and looking like she was belting out Led Zeppelin’s “Gotta a Whole Lotta Love.” The inscription: “Rock and Roll-Aids.” Since we both have spent much of our many years together playing in rock and roll bands, we laughed and thanked her for the wonderful card. We also furtively glance at it on our living room table on a regular basis. To throw it away would mean surrendering our musical souls to the abyss of “acting our age.”

I admit I have been an ageist most of my adult life. I had no interest in old people and didn’t want to spend much of my leisure time with them. They were boring, closed-minded and not hip. I’m sure the hippies’ warning, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” didn’t help. Now that I am a senior citizen, I see young people looking at me, that rock and roller, like I was a newly discovered fossil or, worse yet, not seeing me at all. I am still an ageist. I don’t like spending much leisure time with people under 30.

The term “ageism” was first coined in 1969 by Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging. Although it is an ancient social phenomenon, it wasn’t until the ‘60s that ageism, like sexism and racism, was identified as a form of bigotry that harmed older people’s ambitions, choices, self-esteem and even their futures.

As a social worker on the geriatric wards of a state hospital for several years, I was confronted and confounded by ageism daily. Patients who had lived their entire adult lives in the institution or who had recently been transferred from a nursing home after living a productive life were given the same dismal prognosis by the psychiatrists: “Don’t spend your time trying to help them get out of the hospital. They are too old.” Luckily for the patients, I didn’t listen and was able to get quite a few elderly patients into a better living arrangement before they died. Some went back to family members who were apparently just waiting for some interested staff person to say, “He’s ready to come home now.”

As children we were subject to ageism, as well, but few of us were conscious of it. Society  assumed and expected us to be happy-go-lucky, carefree and giddy, even if our parents’ control thwarted our adventurous side. We were also expected to be obedient, subservient and respectful—true signs of a youngster. It was not until adolescence (or pre-adolescence) that age became an issue for us: “You are too young to date;” “You are old enough to watch your brother while we go out to dinner;” “You aren’t mature enough to drive, no matter what the law says;” “You are old enough to think for yourself” and “Don’t think you are going to do what you want in my house. When you’re old enough to move out, you can do what you want then.” Understandably, all we wanted to do was grow up fast and become masters of our own fate.

However, ageism follows us all through our lives. At home we may hear our children, who suddenly remember being victims of ageism long ago, admonish, “Act your age and don’t dress like a teenager” and our only recourse is to think “How un-cool are they!” Or we might overhear someone say, “Old people having sex is disgusting!” and think “Wait ’til it happens to them.” It is possibly stereotypical ageism even recalling our grandparents as kindly and doting.  Most of us  wanted to spend as much time as possible with them, but as we got older we forgot them. We were raising our own families and perhaps hoping we would be just as doting someday. As our own parents became elderly and frail, we became increasingly ambivalent about old age. Wanting to care for our parents, but needing time to ourselves and our own families, we  ultimately looked into our parents’ eyes and saw our own mortality, perhaps for the first time. Indeed, old age and its many struggles is best left for the strong, but, alas, it comes upon us when we are at our most vulnerable, not necessarily venerable, state since childhood. Bette Davis summed it up well: “Old age is no place for sissies.”

Being young can bring its own form of privilege, acceptance and adulation. Everything seems to revolve around young people—clothing, music, sports, television shows, movies, food.  However, as the demographically powerful baby boomers age, they may succumb to their own brand of ageism.  Some, but not all, may lose interest in going to loud rock concerts, wearing short skirts or watching television shows featuring stars under the age of 25.                                                           

Indeed, what do baby boomers have to look forward to? Perhaps having to pinch pennies, they will eat early at unromantic restaurant dinners and shop only on Thursdays. Will the nursing homes for baby boomers have the Rolling Stones or Guy Lombardo piped in, have bingo or backgammon on Wednesday nights, have oatmeal or feta cheese and spinach omelets, fettucine alfredo or meatloaf, Greta Garbo or Robert Deniro movies? Will future caretakers understand baby boomer culture?  Will they see them as “ex-hippies” or just “ex’s?” Perhaps no longer seen as relevant, creative, in tune, involved, the “revolutionaries” will just be the next ones to be bathed.

What about all those sexy guys who thought of themselves as “big man on campus?” Will they now be seen as proverbial dirty old men? And what of those sexually liberated babes? I suspect they will be invisible, neutered women rocking on chairs but nowhere else.

“You are only as old as you feel.” This wise old saying flies in the face of a basic ageism tenet that require senior citizens to “act your age.” This prescription for powerlessness can lead to withdrawal from social activities, accepting poverty and other hardships or acting slower and sicker than reality dictates.

Ageism surely looks like a dismal picture. What can we women do to change this picture? Plenty.  Let’s look at assertiveness, mind control and grass roots efforts.

Many of today’s elderly were raised in the era of “children should be seen and not heard, and respect your elders at all costs.” Many have never outgrown these damaging messages. As a result, they are often not assertive with doctors, family, realtors, contractors, bankers, etc. If they are assertive, they may be described as described as “cantankerous,” “losing their marbles” or   “suffering from Alzheimer’s.”  It is more important than ever that women over 40 speak up, ask questions, do research and be less naïve and gullible than previous generations when it comes to facing old age. If there are no assertiveness training courses in the area, get books on the subject and talk to friends about handling tough situations (e.g. controlling family members or pushy sales people.)

On the other hand, age alone can help us become more assertive. When I taught assertiveness classes, I would periodically hear,” I don’t care what people think about me as much, now that I am older. I still could get better at it, though.”  Research backs this up. Thomas Perls, a Harvard Medical School gerontologist and researcher, notes that centenarians are typically more assertive and score low on the neuroticism scale.

Don’t give up on your mind quite yet. As we get older we feel our minds gradually slipping away. Indeed, it starts at menopause when we get more confused, can’t multi-task and need to make lists for everything.  We fear we will become victims of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. When we reach 85, at least 2 out of 5 people are living with Alzheimer’s, so we need to take it seriously. Research into brain chemistry and structure, diet, exercise and increased mental activity reveal that we can maintain normal brain health for many years. Drugs that inhibit the creation of brain plaques (MPC-7869) offer promise for the prevention of this “wasting of good minds.”

Get involved. Join the Gray Panthers, a multi-focused organization that formed a National Media Watch Task Force to watch for ageist stereotyping, sponsored legislation to ban mandatory retirement and being leaders in the national movement for universal health care, among other things. Join Last Acts, the nation’s largest coalition for better hospice/palliative care. Join AARP or GROWS.

Finally, whether we call ourselves women over 40, senior citizens, elderly or just on the way out, we owe it to ourselves and society to be as competent, engaged, informed and relevant as we were in our younger days.

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