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Is Ageism in the Eye of the Beholder?

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By Jack Cumming

At the LeadingAge Philadelphia Conference, Katie Smith Sloan, the LeadingAge CEO, and I had a brief exchange. More accurately, I should say that I was in an audience and asked a question which she answered. Both the question and the answer still have me thinking. I asked, “How does ‘An America Freed from Ageism’ differ from the Age-Friendly America movement?” She responded that the latter is about adapting cities to the elderly while the former calls for a cultural change of mindset. I’ve been mulling that wisdom ever since.

I thought about the Village Movement Conference, which I attended recently. At that meeting, there was . . . very roughly . . . an equal balance of elderly Village members, i.e. consumers, and younger staff employed by Villages. Sunday’s opening session of LeadingAge had several thousand staff and a handful of consumers -- residents, etc -- in attendance. The contrast with one conference coming within weeks of the other was striking.

It’s Complicated

The question of bias is complicated. One approach is to act as though the challenged person were just as we are, despite disability, immaturity, or obvious old age. That may show respect and acceptance for our fellow human beings, and that’s positive. But, overlooking their victory over challenge may also diminish recognition for the courage they show, and that’s not so positive.

Overcoming bias does not mean ignoring what is obvious but approaching it with sensitivity and consideration. In general, cultures develop rules of conduct so that as people grow from infancy toward adulthood they can learn norms of courtesy and civility.  

Of course, those norms change over time. At one time, men were expected to hold doors for women, but some saw that as a symbolic vestige of the assigning of an inferior status for women. There are still people who hold doors, and as a man, I feel honored when a woman holds a door to help me. The standards of civility reflect how we show respect to each other. Courteous people are inherently considerate of others and that tends to radiate transformatively into the larger culture.

There Are Realities

The reality of age is that some people become doddering. That’s a reality with which we have to deal with great sensitivity. Where I live, in a CCRC, it’s a recurrent challenge to try to suggest gently to some people that it might be best for them to give up driving. Thank goodness the CCRC concept supports that kind of transition.

Recently, a car, not mine, was parked in my parking space. I fumed for a moment and left a note on the windshield. Fortunately, the note was more temperate than how I was feeling. For the better part of a week, we parked our car elsewhere. At the end of that time, though, a neighbor called to apologize for parking in our space. He had not read the designating sign, he told me, because he can’t see that well and he is legally blind.

My friend and neighbor only discovered the note on the windshield when he went to drive to church and found the note. Now, I don’t consider it ageism to suggest to that person that it might be more considerate of others for him to give up driving. Nevertheless, he might receive that suggestion as demeaning of his person as a consequence of age. Is that Ageism?

A Natural Focus Group

After hearing Katie say we need to be less age biased, I reflected on the irony of LeadingAge as the proponent of an end to ageism while its own Conference has only a negligible sprinkling of the elderly. On the day before the LeadingAge meeting opened, the National Continuing Care Residents Association (NaCCRA), comprised of CCRC residents from across the country, met in a room that was adjacent to the Larry Minnix Leadership Academy meeting, but the two might as well have been on different planets.  

One wise industry observer remarked, “Outside this room, there are several thousand people wanting to understand older adults as customers and prospective customers. Inside this room, there is a gathering of just such adults who would be happy to answer questions and converse. Yet, no one from that world is engaged in this room.” Is that ageism? I don’t know. It’s natural to prefer to mingle with our own contemporaries. It was certainly age-friendly of LeadingAge to host the NaCCRA group.

Our Tendency to Seek Cocoons

This issue of what is ageism and what is age-friendly is one that is deeply entrenched in the America in which we are living today. We have inconsiderate interactions between and among people of differing political persuasions. Nonprofit organizations serving older people meet separately from their taxpaying counterparts. It’s part of the cocooning that has changed dialogue generally in our American society. Perhaps, if we can simply learn to be more considerate of one another, more courteous, more respectful of those who don’t share our cocoon, we can all learn a new mindset of civility and common purpose.

Would that put an end to ageism? We know the challenges of aging. It can require considerable patience to listen to endless repetitions of the same stories. That tendency of the elderly to retreat into a narrowed world of repetition is likely to endure for eons to come. Perhaps we can’t end ageism, per se, but we can all learn to love one another and to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we simply learn to treat others, even old people, with the same respect that we want them to show toward us, we will all be fine and living in a better world.

These attitudes cut both ways. Yes, some dismiss the elderly as stereotypically unfit. It’s also true, though, that older people often condescend toward those who try to help them. Together, we can create a vision for 2050 – not so long from now – that will be more accepting and tolerant than we are today. We can practice a new acceptance for all people whether they are old or think differently or were born differently. We learn and grow when we listen to each other and come to understand the passions and struggles of others.

The common objection, “We’re not ready for that yet,” is itself a kind of ageism. People don’t want to concede that they themselves are aging. We know that old age doesn’t end well. Perhaps, ageism is simply our own denial to help us cope with that reality.

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