This post is by Joan Broughton, whose blog is called Resist Ageism. She volunteers for elder-focused nonprofits and is also writing a novel. Broughton came to this from the online world, where she worked with Global Network Navigator, the first commercial website, and helped major retailers innovate in e-commerce.
Those of us working toward a more enlightened view of aging are attuned to the negative, ageist messages we receive daily from the media and from one another. But what about the negative views we carry around inside ourselves? It’s humbling when we’re forced to confront our own biases, many of which might lurk just below the surface of our conscious minds. The ugly thoughts that bubble up might embarrass us or makes us feel ashamed. But they can also lead usto change our own thinking, and to help others recognize and change the ageist attitudes they might have without even being aware of them.
In this phase of my life—not working a regular job, trying to be a “real” writer, and not yet retired—I’ve done lots of different types of volunteer work. Most of it has been enjoyable and all of it has taught me something. So when my husband asked me to join him at the free tax preparation group where he volunteers, I said yes. After all, it’s a one-day-a-week commitment for about ten weeks, and the people who use the service are mostly lower-income older folks. As a person who believes that older people deserve a break in a world where they’re not always feeling the love, I thought this would be a perfect temporary gig.
I haven’t started the volunteer work yet, but I did attend my first meeting of the volunteers. I guess I forgot to pack my evolved, “don’t judge people by their age” worldview that I’m so proud of. As I sat waiting for everyone to file in, the ageist devil who apparently still sits on my shoulder was thinking, “Yikes! Is everyone going to be this old? How about some fifty-five- or sixty-year-old kids? You know, someone I can relate to? What’s with all these people who must be pushing seventy or more?” (I just turned sixty, but apparently I can’t let go of my youthful late-fifties self-image yet…)
Compounding my discomfort was the fact that the first speaker kept making references to his many senior moments and his general proclivity toward forgetfulness. I first thought, “Don’t go down that road, dude. That kind of self-denigration only perpetuates society’s dismissive attitudes toward older people.” Then I thought, well that’s rich. I spent the first ten minutes of the meeting checking out all the grey hair, rolling my eyes at the corny jokes, and wishing it wasn’t so obvious that as a volunteer with the group I’d be thought of as older, too.
Then I started to listen to what the speakers were saying. They were talking about the Affordable Care Act and the attendant changes in the tax laws, ethical behavior toward clients, data security concerns, and other issues that would not come up in a stereotypical conversation among older people—bingo anyone? I saw how serious these people were and how committed they are to serving a demographic that needs all the help it can get. Now I have a lot of reading to do to get up to speed on the subject matter—something most of the folks there already knew like the back of their hands.
So again, a new volunteer job is offering me the opportunity to learn. I’ll certainly learn more about taxes. But I’m also learning that though I can talk the talk on ageism, I have a long way to go before I truly walk the talk. Maybe all of us carry around a stubborn little ageist devil on our shoulders. I hope that next time I’m in such a situation, I’ll be quicker to tell my little devil to go to hell.