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Aging Well

Ageism and Its End

Until I turned sixty-six, retired, and officially joined the ranks of “the olds,” I lived for decades as an unreflecting and unapologetic ageist. I’m not a mean-spirited person. I pride myself on being open-minded and progressive. I’ve always tried to guard against bias in my thoughts and actions, and to fight bigotry wherever it cast its sulphurous gloom. But somehow, my prejudices about old people seemed to be natural, to reflect the facts of life, to share in the universal consensus. Being old was simply bad, wasn’t it? This felt like a solid fact, an incontrovertible position and, in the U.S. of A., also a basically uncontroversial one. In America—youth-worshipping, plastic-surgery-tweaked America—ageism stands as one of the last widely acceptable social prejudices.

Everyone, it seems, indulges in it, even the most conscientious among us. It’s reflected in our workplaces, courts, laws, and public policies. In movies, on television shows, on the nightly news, and in pharmaceutical commercial after pharmaceutical commercial, we chuckle and grin to see seniors portrayed as cute, helpless, and feeble, stumbling through what’s left of their lives in a fog of befuddlement. We’ve developed a whole vocabulary to express such prejudices: Uh oh, are you having a senior moment? Can you hear me? Where are your keys? Do they still allow you to drive? Maybe just in the slow lane, with one turn signal flashing for no reason? Well, be careful. Are you sure you can handle all this by yourself? Wow, you’re so capable and independent. So youthful! How inspiring. I mean, for someone your age. But you know what they say, “eighty is the new forty.” What are your plans for the time you have left? A little bingo? A few laps around the old mall? Or maybe you’ll stay in, catch up on your programs? Wait! Did you remember to take your meds? Are you sure? Good for you.

The term “ageism” is an abstraction. It strains to capture a varied and complex phenomenon. As used here, ageism comprises systematic neglect, segregation, isolation, and bigotry. Like other prejudices, it works by constructing artificial barriers. On one side of the wall, older people languish, mistreated and misunderstood, viewed less as persons than as ready-made types. On the other side, younger people lose access to a vast store of wisdom and experience, and are tempted to adopt a false vision of life—to live as if old age were something that only happened to other people. In this way, ageism acts like an environmental toxin. As it spreads, it imperils us all, old and young alike.