No one is born prejudiced. But attitudes about age, just like attitudes about race and sex, start to form in early childhood. They’re shaped by storybook characters like Little Red Riding Hood’s helpless, bedridden grandmother and the evil queen who poisons Snow White, and by crochety television characters like Grandpa Simpson, and by commercials that show older people as silly or confused—or don’t show older people at all.
As a result, we learn early on to equate age with illness and loneliness and other deficits. The process is mostly unconscious. Over time these ageist stereotypes—Old people are incompetent. Wrinkles are ugly. It’s sad to be old—harden into a set of truths: “just the way it is.”
Over time, as age-related myths grow more relevant, we tend to act as though they were accurate. This create self-fulfilling prophecies:
My knee hurts because I’m old—even though the other knee doesn’t hurt.
I shouldn’t do XYZ because people my age don’t do that any more—even though I’d like to.
I shouldn’t wear XYZ because that look is “too young”—even though I’d look great in it.
Unless we confront these reduced expectations, they build up over the decades. That’s why older adults are often the most ageist of all. We feel shame and embarrassment instead of taking pride in the accomplishment of aging. (That’s internalized ageism.) We fear aging instead of anticipating and planning for long, active, contented futures. Our worlds shrink, we become less visible, and we let it happen.
Unless we confront the ageism in and around us, we lay the foundation for our own irrelevance and marginalization. The critical starting point is to acknowledge our own prejudices, because change requires awareness. That’s where consciousness-raising comes in.
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