It doesn’t make much sense to discriminate against a group that we all hope to join one day. Everyone wants to grow old. Yet we go to great lengths to pretend it’s somehow, magically, never going to happen—at least not to us. “My mom is 90, but she’s not old,” someone insisted to me recently, as though it were contagious.
Ageism takes root in that denial: our reluctance, even in midlife, to admit that we’re aging. Its hallmark is the irrational insistence that older people are “other,” not us—not even future us. Distancing ourselves in this way makes it easier not to care about other people, even when those people represent our own futures.
That’s one reason five out of six incidents of elder abuse go unreported. Another is internalized ageism: many older people don’t feel they deserve help and are ashamed to ask for it. We blame ourselves for what we think of as “personal problems,” such as not being able to get a job, being belittled—don’t call us “dearie!”—or feeling invisible.
Ageism is so pervasive and unchallenged that it can be hard to see that these feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness are actually a result of being discriminated against. These “personal problems” are actually widely shared political problems. When we’re ageist—when we accept the idea that older people have less value than younger ones, and think it’s “just the way things are”—we pave the way for ourselves to be ignored and mistreated in turn.
It’s time to stop blaming ourselves for not “aging well,” not to mention feeling guilty or ashamed about aging at all! Why should we feel badly about having wrinkles, which are the map of our lives? Why should experience be a liability when it comes to finding a job? Why should we accept the idea that beauty and desire expire at 40?
It’s time to see how ageism makes growing older in America far harder than it has to be. It’s time to look at our own prejudices around age and aging, and begin the hard work of unlearning them. And it’s time to join forces, because we can’t dismantle ageist thinking and behavior on our own. Ending discrimination requires collective action: a radical aging movement.
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