“Why are you wasting your time working with old people? You should focus your work on children. Children are a better investment of your time.”
Although it was almost 30 years ago, I recall this conversation as if it were yesterday. It struck me as peculiar, especially from someone 25 years older.
Immediately, I reflected upon the family in which I was raised and the Jewish community that informed much of my understanding about people, community, wisdom, respect. I realized that because of early multi-generational exposure and education, minimizing the importance of older people was anathema to me. That startling incident awakened me to a new form of prejudice: ageism.
The World Health Organization defines ageism as “the stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination against people on the basis of their age.” Robert N. Butler, gerontologist and Pulitzer-winning author, coined the term in 1969. An oppressive “ism,” it excludes, marginalizes and adversely affects the well-being of older people.
People age, and these internalized messages accompany them into their senior years and can have harmful consequences regarding physical health and self-perception. Messages that old people are unattractive, slow, incompetent, over the hill, no longer useful, or productive, sexless, inflexible, forgetful and clumsy permeate our society in overt and covert ways. They can come through inappropriate humor and rude comments.
Many of us, not properly schooled in the specifics of ageism, make this common verbal error: “I am having a senior moment.” This statement is not benign. Rather, it implies that only “old people” forget things. Lapses in memory are not exclusive to aging.
These messages have impressive sticking power, adhering to people both unconsciously and consciously. Unfortunately, belief in inaccurate, negative ideas can inform critical choices in the last years of a person’s life, inhibiting healthy risk-taking and living fully.
What we do also fuels the engines of ageism. In Arizona, home to many over the age of 50, I have heard statements such as, “This place is where old people go, so you don’t want to go there.” I have always wondered about what drives this behavior. Is old something egregious, or contagious that requires segregation?
This is when we say, “No.”
Imagine from a train window, you see a sparkling, clear blue lake. A bit farther along, castles appear, as if they have suddenly sprung up from the depths of the lake bed. This was my experience as a post-graduate student in Switzerland one summer traveling across the Alps into Northern Italy. As the train approached our destination, I noticed people walking around the lake. Many were couples, strolling arm in arm. It was a beautiful, romantic sight.
As we got closer to the station, I could see that these couples were not young. They were older. Here, mature lovers gracefully encircled an ancient lake, near structures that were hundreds of years old. Everything in my view was “old.” At the same time, everything was exquisitely alive and ageism did not exist.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all resonated with this picture? Then, older workers would be valued, rather than forced to retire. Those aging in place would be loved and generously attended to, instead of being warehoused. Resources for aging-related services would be supported, not severed. Media would also do a better job at depicting activities of those over 50.
Remarkably democratic, ageism remains an equal opportunity “ism.” Culture, color, gender, sexual preference or economic status will not protect you from experiencing it.
Rabbis Richard Address, Laura Geller, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l and Dale Friedman as well as others have activated teachings from the Jewish tradition to provide specialized aging programs and resources, counteracting the effects of ageism.
However, generations of people still need to be informed, so that aging is restored to its rightful place in living. JN
Rabbi Mindie Snyder serves as the rabbi and chaplain for Sun Health Communities.