“Researching this story about getting old was revelatory thanks to @AndreaCharise and @thischairrocks” tweeted Anne Kingston, Senior Writer at Maclean’s magazine, when “Why it’s time to face up to old age” was published this week. That was gratifying, but reading the article—a sharp and balanced look at the social and economic costs of age denial—was even more so.
The article is balanced because its portrayal of aging is nuanced, the tone set by the accompanying photograph of a doctor listening to the lungs of an African American octogenarian in a hospital bed—who’s roaring with laughter. Also because Kingston reviews a raft of evidence that “how we perceive aging and the old has profound consequences in terms of how we actually age, the medical care we will and won’t get, and how financially and emotionally prepared we will be for what can be a long chapter in life.” And it’s important, because it shows how ageism taints those perceptions at every turn, with cascading personal and cultural consequences.
As Kingston observes, people with positive perceptions of late life live significantly longer than those who’ve internalized expectations of memory decline, slower gait, balance problems and feelings of worthlessness. Ageism lies at the root of hostility towards the old and anxiety about joining their ranks. It excuses bigotry and hate speech towards older people and legitimizes harassment and ill treatment. It drives negative myths like the misconception that dementia and incontinence are normal parts of aging, and is responsible for the absence of older people from clinical trials and from popular culture. (More children appear in movies than people over 65.) It’s why older people receive less and lousier medical care, and is responsible for an acute shortage of geriatricians. After all, “a culture that devalues the old places little value on those who work with them.” All of which leave individuals and society woefully ill prepared for the longer lives that await most of us.
Fortunately, as Kingston writes, “a counterinsurgency . . . has begun to mobilize.”