Guest Post: What’s the best way to respond to an ageist comment?

That question comes my way all the time, whether via my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog or during Old School’s weekly Office Hours meet-ups. (Here’s how to join us.) So when journalist and author Phil Moeller obtained some really good answers from some people I greatly respect, I asked permission to run his article as a guest post. A slightly longer version first appeared on his Substack, Get What’s Yours.

There was another study out recently about pervasive ageism. This one dealt with the wording in employment ads. I was going to write yet another angry piece about yet another example of the poor treatment of older people. But why bother? We already know such behavior exists. Besides, what’s an older person to do about it?

Pushing back against societal behavior is nearly impossible for most people. Pushing back against an individual who engages in ageist language or behavior might be another matter. So I decided to seek out some advice from a terrific group of age-related researchers and writers about effective one-on-one responses for older people who experience discriminatory behavior. What works? And could they give me a couple of examples?

To break the ice, I led off with my own example. When I was in rehab for a knee replacement, I had a competent and very likable physical therapist. We talked about a lot of things other than the torture she was inflicting on my new knee joint. One day, she greeted me with: “How are you doing today, young man?”

Of course, my alarms sounded loudly. But I doubted a direct and aggressive response would change her behavior. So, I said, “I’m fine, but I’m afraid I’ll have to report you to the Aging Police.” As I hoped, she asked why, and I was able to explain – quietly, I hope – why I found her greeting inappropriate. I think she listened and, I hope, did not repeat this greeting to other older patients.

With that, here’s what my admittedly self-selected group said. First, some introductions. Here are the people who kindly shared their time and expertise:

Ashton Applewhite is an anti-ageism advocate and the author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.”

Geriatrician, writer, educator, and professor Louise Aronson is the author of Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, and Reimagining Life.

The managing editor for more than a decade at Next Avenue, Rich Eisenberg is now podcasting, freelance writing and teaching digital media in “unretirement.”

Celebrated cultural critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a resident scholar at Brandeis University and the author of Ending Ageism, or How Not To Shoot People.

Kerry Hannon has written for major news outlets and is currently a senior columnist for Yahoo! Finance. Her latest book is In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in the New World of Work.

Tech industry veteran, writer, speaker and elder care advocate Laurie M. Orlov is the founder of Aging and Health Technology Watch.

And here is what they said:

Applewhite: I think the best, all-purpose answer to an ageist comment is, “What do you mean by that?” Ask it in a neutral tone — is your goal to shame or to change? — and then just wait. There’s always an underlying assumption on the basis of age, and you can always point out that plenty of other people the same age don’t behave like that/ look that way/ talk like that / etc.

You can find more examples on my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog.

Aronson: It’s hard to know where to begin, so some random thoughts:

Responding with anger or insult just puts people’s hackles up

Using “I” phrases helps since we all own our own feelings

Best to start by with a pause and some generosity: “Sorry to interrupt, but I just need to point something out. I think you know how much I like/respect/etc you and that’s why I want to tell you that what you just said felt hurtful/insulting/etc. And I know that’s not what you meant. Lots of people do the same thing and most mean well but most of us who are old find those comments offensive/condescending.”

Great if you can explain why: “I’m not a baby, speaking to me in a baby voice is demeaning.” Or “I have trouble hearing but my brain is working just fine.” Or “We both know I’m old, when you pretend otherwise you suggest that being old is a bad thing and it’s not. Bodily changes have their disappointments but, on average, older people are happier and more satisfied with their lives than young people.”

For other scenarios, there’s a similar start. “I’m sorry but I need to stop you there. I’m right here and it feels like you’re talking about me rather than to me. I know that was probably unconscious so I wanted to point it out since there’s no age at which being talked over like that feels good. Can we start again?”

Eisenberg: In my life, sometimes I am about to start interviewing someone who knows my background and who says: “I thought you were retired!” I respond that I retired from my full-time job, but I didn’t retire from life. I go on to say I am retiring the way many are these days: working part-time doing what I enjoy, using new free time to volunteer, mentor, travel and spend time with my wife. 

Gullette: Margaret shared links to three pieces she’s written that include many potentially effective responses and strategies, although they don’t lend themselves to snappy one-liners.

Ageism Ignores And Insults The Competence Of Adults.”

“Fight Ageism By Retiring The Offensive Metaphor, ‘Getting Old’ ”.

“Ramping Up,” about how building a ramp at my summer house solved a problem that went deeper than we knew.

Hannon: Ageism is alive and well in the workplace and deeply engrained in our culture. One of the best ways to fight back against ageism is to be physically fit. It’s a fact of life that we judge people on their cover. “Lookism.” I can’t tell you how many jobseekers over 50 ask me if they should get botox or dye their hair to hide the gray. It’s top of mind. I always say, sure if it makes you feel better and more confident. But the best way to fight ageism is to get physically fit.

I don’t mean bench pressing or running fast miles. But rather incorporate a fitness program into your daily life and eat with an eye to nutrition. That might mean walking your dog a few miles a day like I do, or swimming and so forth. When you’re physically fit, you exude a can-do attitude, you have energy and a positive vibe. People want to be around you. They want you on their team. They want to be your client. It is subliminal.

Orlov: I was in a medical office, and the receptionist spoke loudly to everyone who approached their desk, regardless of whether they gave any indication of being hearing-impaired. Just say – and not in a loud voice – there’s no need to shout. I have perfect hearing.

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