“I turned 60 last week,” I said, as I lay on my back on the Pilates reformer, to anyone in the class who might be listening. I don’t know why I said it out loud. I usually don’t talk at all in class. But the truth was, I was struggling with this “milestone” birthday. I suddenly felt old in a way that caught me off guard.
Of course, I’m aware of how dis-empowering we are in our American culture towards “old people.” I’ve done it myself. I rarely seek the wisdom of someone much older, somehow assuming I’m much more “with it” (arrogance at its finest).
And then one of the women in my Pilates class muttered, “Well, just wait until you are 65.”
Later, as I packed up to leave class, I considered this thing called ageism. The future seemed bleak. But why?
Here are two big things I’ve learned about ageism:
It’s external and all around us.
Psychiatrist and gerontologist Dr. Robert Butler coined the term ageism in his 1969 article, “Age-Ism: Another Form of Bigotry.” Simply put, it is prejudice by one age group toward other age groups.
“Ageism reflects a deep-seated uneasiness on the part of the young and middle-aged — a personal revulsion to a distaste for growing old, disease, disability; and fear of powerlessness, uselessness and death,” he wrote.
Pervasive though it may be, ageism isn’t benign. As Becca Levy, a leader of the World Health Organization — sponsored review of studies on health consequences, told Paula Span of The New York Times, “Stereotypes can have direct impact on older people’s health and function.”
It’s internal, even if we don’t always realize it.
Ageism isn’t just something others project onto you. It becomes internal when you start referring to yourself as “old” or disparaging yourself in other ways in your thinking or speaking to others.
If you are hard on yourself for forgetting why you walked into a room, or for being achy when you first climb out of bed, you’re not making things better. If you disempower yourself when it comes to new technology you haven’t learned yet or find frustrating, you’re inflicting ageism on yourself. If you over-focus on the negative when it comes to your body and its natural aging process, that’s ageism, too.
How to Dismantle Ageism
As with most things, start with yourself first.
Develop a positive relationship to your own aging.
Resist the urge to say mean things to and about yourself. As part of my own personal goal to get better at practicing self-compassion, I’m reading Dr. Kristin Neff’s book, “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.” She teaches us to honor our humanity and suffering. If your hip starts to ache, don’t immediately go to the negative and clump your symptoms together in the basket called “it’s no use, I’m ancient.”
Because self-compassion can be pretty powerful. Dr. Levy has shown that older people who see aging in positive terms are much more likely to recover from disability than those who believe negative age stereotypes. They’re also more likely to practice preventive health measures such as eating well and exercising. They experience less depression and anxiety. They live longer.
Changing how you think, feel and act towards age and aging is a good starting point for healthy aging.
Don’t add fuel to the fire.
As we are learning to undo our collective racism, we also need to stay awake to prejudices and judgments we have about people who are older or younger than us.
A few years ago, my leadership development consulting firm hired a company to revamp our website. They invited our leadership team to their offices for the kickoff meeting, and as we walked into their client meeting room, I looked around. No one was older than 25. I caught myself waiting for the “adults” to join us — my own prejudice laid bare.
The truth was, I didn’t trust these young people to be reliable, accountable and responsible, which tells you something about my judgments and assumptions.
In the end? They delivered our website creatively, on time and on budget. And I rearranged my brain to include more empowering ideas about 20-somethings.
We are living in a remarkable time of history. The rules and roles are being changed and challenged. I encourage you to check your assumptions about ageism and change your relationship to aging. You’ll be happier and healthier because of it.