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Consciousness-raising for Ageism while Fighting Other “isms”

This guest post is by Mica Wilson, a marketing and communications professional living in New Rochelle, NY, who has over 30 years of experience in corporate and non-profit organizations. Mica loves to travel around the world gaining perspective on other people’s cultures and struggles, especially those of women and girls. She is currently developing a cross-generational podcast that provides advice and insights for professional women. Please send any questions or comments to Mica at DameTalk4 [at] gmail [dot] com.

On any given day I may experience various forms of prejudice, or “isms”. I am Black, a woman, and looking for a job at 55. I have been inspired to share my personal story after reading Who me, ageist?” A guide to starting a consciousness-raising group around age bias: by Ashton Applewhite. I hope that what I share will motivate those in “power” to join the ageism movement. I define “power”, as those who can make decisions about who they hire, the stories that get told to us through the media, and the policies that are put in place to protect vulnerable and marginalized people. I call out those in power because they have the ability to accelerate change.

Ageism is a unifier because it affects everyone. You face it as a young person when your thoughts and opinions are dismissed because you are “too young” to know anything. Or you may be considered “too old” to add value in the workplace or contribute to society. No matter your sex, race, religion, or sexual identity, you will face ageism. History has shown us there is strength in numbers. The civil rights movement would not have advanced in the same way without the support of non-Black people, and the women’s rights movement was a beneficiary. The ageism movement deserves the same momentum and support.

I must confess, I struggle with focusing on ageism because racism and sexism play such a dominant role in my everyday life. I’m affected by not just my personal experiences, but also by close friend’s experiences, and what I see on TV and read in the news every single day. The stories are rarely positive about people like me. Black man killed by police, Black man arrested then tied to a rope and forced to walk down the street with policemen on horses, Black women make 63 cents to every dollar white men make, there has never been a woman president, NYC has never had a woman mayor, and it goes on and on and on. Every day several stories in the news make me question my value and worth in America. So, when I apply for that job and get no response is it because of my skills, race, sex, or age? It doesn’t help that marketing and communications is considered a “young person’s game”. Whatever the answer is I have to continue living, working, and finding happiness like any other American.

As you get older, your network can make or break you in the job market. To be considered for an opportunity, at minimum you need to know someone who can send your resume directly to HR or a hiring manager. It’s nirvana if you know someone at a senior level who can make the hiring decision or influence it. In this scenario, who gets hurt the most? You got it, Black women. Our network generally does not include enough senior level men or women to help us get that job. When we do know someone, they aren’t always willing to put themselves out there for us. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule. In almost every job I’ve gotten, African-American women and men made sure I was considered for the position. Interestingly enough, they were all in my age group, which I believe speaks to how my support network was limited… Black women and men my age.

It’s important to me that anyone I interact with feels respected and heard. Therefore, when I am around younger people, I make sure our communication is a two-way street. I impart my wisdom to help them avoid some of the minefields I’ve been through. But I also learn from them, whether tech tips, new music, or their perspective on what’s happening in the world today. This allows me to not get stuck in my pre-conceived notions. I’m not a fan of today’s hip-hop, but my nieces introduced me to Lizzo. Yes, while there is some profanity in her music that I prefer not to hear, she is about empowering young women. Her recent call to action was for people to drop the ageism sh**t for the 2020 election. Her lyrics have a powerful message, she speaks out against ageism, she gets it. I have respect for her and I’m now a fan.

I will continue to do my part in the ageism movement. That means where I have influence, I will make sure you are heard and valued no matter how old you happen to be. To that end, I’ve started a podcast where four generations of women including a Millennial and a Gen Z have a seat at the table. Here is my ask to Millennials and Gen Z: join the ageism movement and make sure by the time you reach 50 you have done your part to raise the consciousness of those around you at work and home.  My request to those who are in a decision-making position or participate in the hiring process: ensure that your pool of candidates contains at least one person over 50. If you’re in marketing and communications and the candidate happens to be an African-American woman named Mica Wilson…you just hit the jackpot.

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How is healthcare in America failing older people—and why? Read ELDERHOOD.

Treating a patient slowed by Parkinson’s, geriatrician Louise Aronson sings a chorus of “Happy Birthday” in her head to make sure they have enough time to respond. I’d love a doctor this humane as I head into old age, not to mention this expert. But she lives across the country and I’ll bet there’s quite a waiting list, so I’ll have to settle for her as an ally—and what an important ally she is.   

Elderhood, Aronson’s urgent, eloquent new book, catapults her to the front line of those calling for culture change around aging in general and healthcare in particular. It’s an expertly argued takedown of a system that:

  • makes it far easier for people to see doctors than get the social services that would improve their lives;
  • punishes doctors, instead of rewarding them, for tackling the complex needs of older people in a humane, holistic fashion. Many burn out, including Aronson herself, a painful process she chronicles in the book.
  • prioritizes the high-tech over the human, those in midlife over the young and the old, and curing over caring;
  • typically treats the chronic conditions that accumulate over time without taking quality of life into consideration, making more years of debility more likely;
  • makes a good death harder to achieve by forcing many people to go on longer than they would like. The list goes on.

Innovations are underway, but most medical schools have yet to question the profession’s entrenched bias and assumptions. Olders are either undertreated (deprived of treatment that would probably help them) or overtreated (with drugs and regimens that don’t take age into account). Both approaches, Aronson bluntly observes, “are forms of ageism.” So is the omission of older people from clinical trials, which Aronson calls “ridiculous,” likening age limits in osteoporosis studies to “ studying menopause in thirty-year-old women.” So is the lack of interest in why men live less long. Again, the list goes on.

Why don’t clinicians spend more time studying the people and complex conditions that require the most medical attention—and healthcare dollars? Because, Aronson explains “social forces and cultural rationales determine what doctors study and value.” Left behind are not only the non-young but the non-male, non-white, and non-“able-bodied,” and as she comments tartly, “When people are defined by what they are not, we are in trouble.” Medical advances have very different consequences in a world of much longer lives, yet most institutions ignore those consequences. The result is vast waste and immense suffering.

What we need, Aronson argues, isn’t better medical science and technology, but a profound shift in the underlying culture around age and aging:

Biology matters, but it’s only one part of a far more complex equation that includes attitude, behaviors, relationships, and culture. That’s a terrifying thought in a culture where ageism is more common than sexism or racism, and most people of all ages see old age through a window rendered dark and dirty by negative stereotypes. But there’s hope—beliefs have frequently changed through history, and for individuals, they can change at any age. And when beliefs about elderhood change, the culture and experience of old age, in life and in medicine, will change too.

For Aronson’s blueprint for the necessary innovative, structural changes to our healthcare system, read her book. (Read it also for the moving portraits and splendid prose; Aronson is also a gifted writer.) For the necessary shift in our attitudes and beliefs about aging, read mine—and look in the mirror. The culture change that both of us demand requires a grassroots social movement, like the women’s movement, to raise awareness of ageism and make it as unacceptable as any other form of prejudice. That change begins in each of us, as we confront our own internalized age bias, begin to unlearn it, and take that shift out into the world. For starters, if your or your parents’ doctor says, “What do you expect at your age?” call them on it—and find a new doctor.

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Definitive evidence that anti-ageism interventions work

We’ve known for a while that ageism—negative beliefs and stereotypes about aging—make us vulnerable to disease and decline, and also that the opposite is true. People with fact- rather than fear-based attitudes towards aging walk faster, heal quicker, live longer, and are less likely to get Alzheimer’s—even if they’re genetically predisposed to the disease.

Until recently, though, we didn’t  know much about whether strategies to reduce ageism actually worked. That changed on June 21, when a report published in the American Journal of Public Health showed for the first time that “it is possible to reduce ageist attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes.” Boom! The results are far more definitive than a single study. Scientists at Cornell University conducted a “systematic review and meta-analysis”  of 63 studies conducted over the past forty years with a total of 6,124 participants. After evaluating three types of interventions designed to curb ageism, they found that the most successful  programs encourage intergenerational contact and educate people about the facts of aging.

“The most surprising thing was how well some of these programs seemed to work,” observed co-author Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell and gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “The findings really suggest that these interventions had a very strong effect on outcomes, attitudes and knowledge” about aging, concurred study author David Burnes, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Toronto.

Not only that, experts agree that these kinds of interventions shouldn’t cost much money and are easy to implement. Possibilities include after-school mentoring or tutoring programs; college classes on aging and age bias; and activities that involve all ages, like a community garden or putting on a play or organizing around a shared cause.

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There’s no excusing ageism.

When the last parent died in 2017, I visualized their canoes heading over an immense waterfall. My partner’s and my canoes fell next in line. Gulp. Yet this scenario sure beats the alternative: outliving the younger people we love. Is it this inexorable succession that gives purchase to the notion that ageism is less problematic than other forms of prejudice? Many people seem to agree that while racism and sexism are inherently wrong, it’s acceptable for olders to be ushered offstage, whether or not they go willingly. Many factors—age segregation, the anti-aging industrial complex, the cultural narrative that to age is to fail—feed that idea.

In fact there is nothing acceptable about any group being isolated or silenced against their wishes. The wrong lies in giving any kind of discrimination a pass.

Here are some of the arguments people use to excuse age bias, explained and rebutted:

Straw man #1: Prejudice is hard-wired.

Neither the fundamental cycle of life nor our evolutionary history justifies one of the most common justifications for bias in general and age bias in particular: being prejudiced is a part of being human. We know that homo sapiens evolved with a proclivity to divide people into “us” and “them,” behavior that conferred survival benefits by making it easier and quicker to choose who to trust. But we no longer live in isolated tribes; “us” and “them” commingle, all over the world. Prejudice is ignorant, and we now have far more information at our disposal than our hominid ancestors did. We also no longer die young, and in a world of longer lives a bias against our future selves makes even less sense (not that any prejudice is rational). Are only the reproductively active of value in an information society? Are we still hostage to these ancient biases?

I don’t buy it, and science backs me up. “The assumption that groups are competitive, that it’s built on our evolution as a social species — it’s just not true,” says sociologist Marilynn Brewer. The current scientific understanding is that humans are hardwired to make distinctions on the basis of physical appearance, but not to act in any particular given way because of it. Prejudice (the rapid tendency to make us vs. them distinctions) is less controllable than discrimination (behaving in ways that foster or reinforce those distinctions). In other words, we all see race—no one is “colorblind,” and to pretend otherwise is to be blind to racism and privilege—but we can respond by thinking and acting in anti-racist ways. We can choose to become aware of our biases instead of letting them unconsciously drive actions that harm the less privileged. And we need to work to unlearn them, because being “woke” is not enough.

Straw man #2: Age segregation is natural.

These days, with the exception of family gatherings and large public events, it’s rare for the generations to mix socially. It wasn’t always like that. Well into the nineteenth century, many Americans didn’t celebrate birthdays or even know their birth year! Only during the Industrial Revolution did age become important. Age-specific institutions like orphanages and old age homes arose; age began to determine when people could work, drink, smoke, and have sex; and people began to socialize with age peers. Segregation begets discrimination: ageism reared its head alongside age consciousness.

I used to say that ageism subverted the “natural order of things” by fostering age segregation. I don’t any more, thanks in part to an astute comment on my blog: “it is wrong to infer that anything in the past is automatically the ‘natural order of things,’” they wrote, because the phrase prioritizes returning to the familiar over adapting to the new. “There is no ‘going back’ to the old ways. We confuse the ‘what we need to do’ with the ‘how we need to get there.’”

The “there” I hope we reach is a world that supports people across the lifespan. We get there by acknowledging that aging is natural and ageism is not. We get there by exposing the reactionary voices that seek to persuade us otherwise. An ageist and sexist world finds older women’s bodies repulsive; an anti-Semitic one is repelled by Jews; an ableist one wants the differently abled out of sight; a white supremacist world finds people of color unworthy of equal access to power and resources. Those values are socially constructed. In other words, we make them up, and we can unmake them and embrace different ones.

What does “natural” mean, anyhow? People with severe disabilities used to die young. Not that long ago it was considered “unnatural” for people to be physically attracted to the same sex, or for privileged women to work outside the home. Culture change is slow: interracial marriage was banned in California until 1948. These struggles are ongoing: abhorrence of “race-mixing” and the threat of “white extinction” fuels currently resurgent white supremacy. But none of this stigma is “natural” and none of it is fixed.

Ageism persists for the same reason as other forms of oppression: not because it’s human nature but because it sustains existing power relations . Feeling alienated from older people and apprehensive at becoming like us is not “natural” or appropriate or inevitable. It is the result of social forces—ageism, sexism, and capitalism.

Straw man #3: People reject olders to avoid thinking about their own mortality.

Another rationale for gerontophobia(fear of aging and aversion to old people) is that olders are closer to death, and, well, who wants to go there? The dearth of meaningful rituals around death and dying in American culture doesn’t help. Compare it to Mexico, where the culture embraces death as part of life, and celebrates the Day of the Dead as a time to honor and connect with those who have passed on.

Fear of dying is human; it’s why we have religion, and Mozart’s Requiem. Fear of aging, however, is cultural; plenty of societies venerate their older members and keep them in community. It is an ageist world that conflates the two. It’s why bookstores have shelves labeled “Aging and Death,” and why you can get a graduate degree in “Older Adult/End of Life Care.” Yes, older people are reminders of mortality; our canoes are closer to the waterfall. But aging is a lifelong process: to age is to live and to live is to age.  Dying, on the other hand, is a distinct biological event that happens only at the end of all that living, as anyone who has witnessed a death can attest. People may think I’m ancient, but they don’t think I’m dying.

The conflation of aging and dying also annoys Mike North, a professor at New York University who studies older workers and who provided the academic term for it: mortality salience. It derives from a field called . . . wait for it . . . “terror management theory,” which asserts that fear of dying drives almost all human activity. North isn’t buying it. “How does mortality salience explain forcing 50-year-olds out of the job market?” he asks. Or bias against younger people? I’m not buying it either. Ageism cuts both ways, and aversion to confronting our mortality does not explain or justify it.

Straw man #4: Ageism isn’t as problematic as other “isms.”

What’s my least favorite rationale for giving ageism a pass? That discrimination against olders is somehow more excusable than other forms of prejudice: bias lite, as it were. The government declined to add age to race and sex as a protected category under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The burden of proof is higher in age discrimination cases, too. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor set age apart “because all persons, if they live out their normal life spans, will experience it.” But as age scholar Margaret Cruikshank has pointed out, not only are older people a minority of the population, there’s no comfort in the fact that some escaped unfair treatment when they were young. Ageism is different from other oppressions in that each of us will encounter it, and unique in that we move into and out of age privilege, but those attributes don’t make it more problematic than other “isms”—or less so. All discrimination is wrong.

More importantly, trying to determine which prejudice does the most damage or which group is the worst off— getting sucked into the “oppression Olympics”—is counterproductive and divisive. This way of thinking keeps us from uniting against the structures and systems that benefit from all forms of prejudice. “In pitting one ism against the other, we serve those in power,” counselor and anti-ageism advocate L.C. confirms. “All isms are reprehensible.”

Nor are these oppressions are the same, or experienced equally. “Ageism looks differently on Blacks and people of color, because we are united with and affected by all the other isms,” L.C. continues. “As an African American woman I cannot divide myself into pieces.” Uncomfortable with the way a group of white cops were placing an older black man into an EMT truck, she asked them not to harm or kill him. “I was told to mind my business. They did not see their grandmother nor mother. They saw the color of my skin, without value in this society.” Just as humans cannot be divided into pieces, neither should efforts towards a more equitable world for all. As the T-shirts say, none of us is free until all of us are free. It’s all one struggle.

A better world in which to grow old is also a better place to be female, be queer, to have a disability, to be from somewhere else.

Just as different forms of oppression intersect and reinforce each other, so do different forms of activism: when we chip away at any form of prejudice, we chip away at the ignorance and fear that underlie them all. Because aging is the one universal human experience, ageism is a perfect target for compound activism. Undoing ageism, in turn, requires anti-ageists to join forces with other groups who are marginalized because of what they look like, how their bodies work, who they love, and how and where they grew up.

Building an intersectional and inclusive movement against ageism will be take longer, but it’s the one I want to be part of. The movement that emerges will be stronger, more resilient, more radical, more sustainable, and more joyful. It’s the way to eradicate ageism in all sectors of society. Activism of any kind is more effective if it’s intergenerational. And only by coming together at all ages against all oppression will we create the more equitable world we all hope to live long enough to inhabit.

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Thanks, Washington Post, but you missed the whole point

I was thrilled that my book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, was just nominated by the Washington Post Book World’s staff as one of the “100 Best Books to Read at Any Age.” I got queasy when I saw the list was divided into decades—never, just never, a good idea. And I was sickened to see the book recommended for readers age . . . wait for it . . . ninety-four.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d be delighted to have boatloads more readers in their nineties, and it’s not too shabby to be sandwiched between Yuval Harari and Elena Ferrante. But the book’s central message is that ageism affects all of us, and the earlier we become aware of the cultural and economic forces that benefit from age bias, the better off we are. Ninety-four is damn late to get the memo. Overcoming unconscious bias is the work of a lifetime, changing the culture is a task for all ages, and the sooner we embark on it—especially in a world of longer lives—the better.

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“rowing north” against ageism, sexism, and misogyny

Mary Pipher is a psychologist who specializes in women—adolescents in her first bestseller, Reviving Ophelia, and now those entering old age, in Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age. Published this January, it too became a bestseller, not only because Pipher is a gifted clinician and storyteller but because her message, like mine, resonates deeply with what our readers know: age confers voice, self-knowledge, contentment. We like being older. . “Contrary to cultural stereotypes,” writes Pipher, “most women become increasingly happy after age 55, with their peak of happiness at the very end of life.”

That’s despite having to contend with the misogyny, ageism, and sexism that reduce us to sexless, voiceless, shapeless, and useless caricatures of our richly textured selves. “Old women in America suffer a social disease. For us, ageism may be an even more serious challenge than aging,” Pipher writes (emphasis mine). Misogyny is dislike, contempt, or ingrained prejudice against women. Pair it with ageism, which we are just beginning to confront, and the full truth is immensely painful. But we have choices, and ever-louder voices.

“What women mean when they say, ‘I’m not old,’ is ‘I won’t accept the ideas the culture has about me,’” Pipher writes. If we have courage and will, we have agency. In Pipher’s words, “Because our current cultural stories about how we should behave are useless, we have great freedom to throw off our chains and resist definition by the broader culture.”  How do we do it?  Pipher proposes three main steps:

  1. “First, we can take responsibility for educating other people about both the negative stereotypes and the reality of our lives. We can resolve not to criticize ourselves or other women or make negative remarks about aging or appearance …”
  2. “We can be advocates for women of all ages, working to create the institutions and policies we require to live healthy, social, and productive lives throughout the life span.” This can take all kinds of forms, from writing letters and lobbying to protesting and “grab[bing] the attention of the press” by using music, art, and theater.
  3. “Finally, we can converse with people of all ages …. Younger and older women working together is a great way to facilitate mutual respect, empathy, and understanding.” The goal is political change that will benefit the women that follow in our footsteps.

It’s no surprise my call to women, set out in this New York Times opinion piece, covers very similar ground:

  1. Tap into what we know: growing older enriches us.
  2. Learn to look more generously at each other, and ourselves.
  3. Reject old-vs.-young ways of thinking.
  4. Come together at all ages and talk about this stuff.

Let’s not delude ourselves: this is the work of a lifetime. We need to embark on it with others, and across generations. But none of this stigma is “natural,” and none of it is fixed. A movement to end ageism is underway around the world, and—again, unsurprisingly—women are leading it.

We have a choice: we can keep digging the hole deeper, or we can throw away the damn shovel. We can move, if we have the will and the desire and the vision, from competing to collaborating. We can turn it from a conversation about scarcity and loss to one about empowerment and equity. And we can take that change out into the world. The women’s movement taught us to claim our power; a pro-aging movement will teach us to hold onto it.

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Five things I learned on my book tour.

Five weeks, eleven cities, fourteen book talks, nine media appearances, twenty-one regular talks, Phew. I got so tired it felt as though gravity was messing with me, or as if  I’d been inexpertly inflated. Also exhilarating: a nationwide network of pro-aging activists came out to support me and spread the word—thank you thank you thank you. Also educational;  I learned a lot.

  • How to pronounce Buttigieg: Buddha + tszuj (as in “jujj,” as in “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”). Source: NPR’s age beat reporter Ina Jaffe, and she ought to know.
  • African-Americans are two to three times likelier than whites to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “The disparities are explained by its association with poverty,” said USC’s Karen D. Lincoln, much of whose work focuses on educating African Americans about the disease.
  • The best way to answer “how old are you?”  Say, “I was born in 1952” (if you’re my age). The questioner spazzes because they can’t do the math. You’ve answered forthrightly. And without a number with
  • without a number to peg assumptions to, the questioner is left to reflect on how much you’ve seen and done, free of any ageist connotations. 
  • Another problem with “agelessness”: I’m no fan of the word because of its inherent age denial. A woman at a reading in Seattle added, “I think saying you’re ageless is like saying you’re colorblind.” Boom. Because if you “don’t see race,” you don’t see racism.
  • The anti-ageism movement is talking tactics. Ten years ago I spent most of my time explaining what ageism is and why it matters. Now all kinds of people—from librarians in Denver to Age-Friendly organizers in San Francisco to architects in Pittsburgh—are asking how to make their efforts explicitly anti-ageist. We pro-agers transitioning from talking to doing—and that’s exciting.
Rabble-rousing at UC Berkeley — what better place?

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good words for the observant — and for everyone else

The blurb that my friend and ally, Sister Imelda, sent to the U.S. Ursuline nuns at the request of one of their Sisters in elected leadership.

THIS CHAIR ROCKS:  A MANIFESTO AGAINST AGEISM

We’ve all been there:

  • Shocked, unhappy at the growing expanse of gray hair — or maybe just the growing expanse!
  • The dissatisfaction with hair that is getting thinner, the chin that is becoming a double chin
  • The embarrassment that it is not always so easy to open that sealed jar of olives
  • The embarrassment that it takes a little longer to get up that last flight of stairs

Ashton Applewhite sets all these experiences around aging in perspective, showing how almost universally we respond to these physical changes as negative. She calls it “age shame”, seeded and nurtured through the false, negative myths of aging that we have absorbed all our lives. We have never assessed these suppositions about age; we have just believed them and have been taken in by them hook, line and sinker! Believing all these negative myths about aging is a profound prejudice against our future selves and is profoundly harmful to our well-being

When God looked at Creation on the seventh day, God said, “It is good, very good.”  God did not say, “The first forty years or so of human life are very good, but after that it is pretty much downhill”.  This Chair Rocks releases – without ever using a religious context – the Gospel News that God ‘s creation of us is “good, very good”, not just for the first half of life but throughout the lifespan., Read it and it will turn your ideas of aging on their head! This is the good news that we should be preaching today in our works of mercy through word and example!

Imelda