Where does the message that we’re “too old” for something—be it a task, a relationship, or a haircut—originate? Usually between our ears, because we’ve internalized a lifetime of messages that older people are undesirable or incompetent or unwelcome, and should shuffle to the sidelines. Preferably without making a fuss.
Those messages are ageist stereotypes. Stereotyping lies at the heart of all “isms”: the assumption that all members of a group are the same. It’s why people think everyone in a retirement home is the same age—”old”—even though residents can range from people in their fifties to centenarians. (Can you imagine thinking the same way about a group of 20- to 60-year-olds?) All stereotyping is wrong, but especially when it comes to age, because the older we get the more different from one another we become. As doctors put it, “If you’ve seen one eighty-year-old, you’ve seen one eighty-year-old.”
That’s why there’s no such thing as “acting your age.” The longer we live, the less our chronological age says about what we’re capable of or interested in. It’s never a good idea to do or wear something because you think it’ll make you “look young.” It’s totally fine to give ear-splitting music a pass or put backpacking or high heels behind you—If that’s your choice. But if the prospect genuinely appeals, and if you’re only staying home because you might be the oldest person to partake, think again. If you’re a foodie, who cares if you’ll be the only gray head in the room at that trendy new restaurant? If you love to dance, who cares if you’re the oldest person on the floor? It shouldn’t matter to you, nor to anyone else.
That’s how desegregation happens. People with the most at stake—olders, in this case—step up and step out. They stop conforming. The open-minded welcome them, and incremental social change takes place. The point is not to act artificially, but to test ourselves a bit, by challenging the status quo, keeping our worlds from shrinking, and doing our part to integrate them. The task is to figure out what’s us-appropriate at any point, not necessarily what biology predicts or an ageist culture ordains. Because there’s no such thing as age-appropriate.
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