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Ashton Applewhite

“Too old to be president,” Take Umpteen

Wondering how to respond when people equate a political candidate’s age with their fitness for office? You’ll find plenty of answers in “Biden is now America’s first octogenarian president. Here’s what that means,” which appeared in Salon today. The writer reached out to experts like physician Louise Aronson and demographer Jay Olshansky, who warned against ageism. I called out ableism: “It’s appalling to mock Biden for a stutter he has worked to overcome his entire life. And it’s disgusting to make fun of him for falling off a bike. It’s commendable that he rides a bike and stays physically fit.”

Ageism and ableism rear their ugly heads every electoral cycle. The lead-up to the 2022 mid-term elections featured an outbreak of major media stories that blamed “gerontocracy” for our broken democratic system. The “Take Umpteen” in the title of this post refers to “Here we go again with ‘too old to be president,” written when “old guy” Bernie Sanders was on the campaign trail. I said it then, I said it to Salon, and I’ll say it again:

Generalizations about the capacities of older people are no more acceptable than racial or gender stereotypes. Period.

The country’s first octogenarian president is considering running against someone only slightly younger. It’s bringing the haters out. To challenge their ageism and ableism, we need expert evidence. I’m grateful to Salon article for marshalling so much of it for today’s article. “Does age matter?” from the International Council on Active Aging is another good resource. So is this blog.

No matter what candidate is under scrutiny, the issue is a political system that prioritizes corporate interests—not the age of the wealthy men who benefit most. The issue is a culture that stigmatizes disability (see this post about Senator Diane Feinstein)—not the age at which we encounter it. The issue is capacity—not age.

Do it like Nashua!

Holly Klump, Assistant Librarian at the Nashua, NH, Public Library, put together a nifty event last week. Most of the 42 attendees were from RISE (Rivier Institute of Senior Education), an educational program run by a local university, as was the facilitator who led a discussion after the group watched my TED talk. Holly loved the audience reaction: “laughter/stunned silence/murmurs of agreement, etc.” Next the group watched a couple of my short Yo Is this Ageist? video clips. By the time I showed up—virtually—45 minutes into the program, the group had prepared some tough questions for me.  Heidi had also made sure the library and university had copies of my book.

“We heard lots of great feedback about the program,” Holly reported back, “and hopefully it will create more discussion and action. You certainly gave me lots to think about as well, especially how to address everyday ageism that I hear all around me. I also really appreciate and respect that you don’t shy away from talking about the other ‘isms.’”

Thinking of putting together an event about ageism that’s free and open to the public?  I work hard to make my ideas available via my This Chair Rocks blog (which is searchable by topic), my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog, videos, and extensive interviews—all available via my website. You can find hundreds more free resources of all types in the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse.

If you do your part—gather a decent-sized audience and ask them to engage in advance with some of these ideas—I’ll do mine: show up for a virtual Q&A. I’ll also ask for an honorarium payable to Old School, which is a nonprofit, and if you can’t manage one, I’ll show up for free.

 “Ravages of age,” really? That phrase has got to go.

This week’s New York Times Magazine opened with an essay by Elizabeth Nelson about whether we’re missing out on when elite athletes—Roger Federer and Serena Williams in this case—retire from their sports.     

Photo illustration by Mark Weaver

This sentence in the first paragraph made me groan:  “The ravages of age, culminating with a recent knee surgery, finally persuaded [Federer] to retire.”

This sentence in the second paragraph—“Sportswriters are required to use phrases like ‘ravages of age’ when discussing an athlete in decline”—made me howl. The hell they are! It’s a lazy habit journalists need to break. It’s also bigoted and misleading.

The following sentence did nothing to calm me down: “Truth be told, it’s a bit of a reach when describing Federer’s goodbye. Trim and suave . . . he scarcely gave the appearance of a man facing down senescence—just a man acknowledging the fact he can’t go five sets deep with Novak Djokovic.” Indeed.

Humans lose speed and strength as we move into midlife. This loss is more acute for athletes, whose careers are built on physical capacity. Federer is making this transition with grace and skill, not “facing down senescence.”

We age well by adapting to the way our bodies change over time, not by pretending it’ll never happen to us or by experiencing these changes as betrayal. It’s ageist and ableist to describe them as “ravaging.” Synonyms for “ravaged” include “destroyed,“ “devastated,” and “ruined.” Federer likely has decades of active, meaningful life ahead of him, not to mention countless lucrative opportunities.

Disease ravages. Grief ravages. Fear ravages. These experiences are part of being human, from childhood on. To blame them on aging is to blame them on living.

Language matters. Journalists need to stop relying on offensive, misleading phrases like “ravages of age,” and we need to keep calling them out until they do.

Thrilled and honored to be one of the Healthy Ageing 50

So this happened. Yesterday the Decade of Healthy Aging (a collaboration between the UN and the WHO) announced The Healthy Ageing 50: Government, civil society, industry and academic leaders transforming the world to be a better place in which to grow older. Incredibly, I’m one of them.

It takes a lot to bring me to tears, but the last line of my gorgeous profile did the job: “Ashton Applewhite shows us that a world for all ages is indeed possible if we recognise the potential within each of us, speak truth to power, and stand together as one.” Now I can get hit by a bus. Just kidding about the bus.

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.

More evidence of how ageism affects our mental and physical well-being

Ageism affects how our minds and bodies function, and not in a good way. We’ve known that for a while, thanks in large part to the work of Yale’s Becca Levy, whose groundbreaking work, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live, was published this spring.

So it’s exciting to see new data on the health effects of ageism from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, a survey of 2035 nationally representative Americans ages 50 to 80, published on June 15 by JAMA Open Network. Also, instead of focusing on well-researched contexts like healthcare or the workplace, this study is the first to confirm the near-universal nature of minor but pervasive forms of age discrimination, which the authors refer to as “everyday ageism.” A full 93% of respondents encountered some form of it in their daily lives, such as commercials for anti-aging products, “senior moment” quips, or what the researchers describe as “brief verbal, nonverbal, and environmental indignities that convey hostility, a lack of value, or narrow stereotypes of older adults.”

There’s a word for these derogatory behaviors:  microaggressions—indirect, often unintentional expressions of prejudice. There’s nothing “micro” about their effect on our well-being. Exposure to microagressions is associated with depression, anxiety, lower job satisfaction and poor self-esteem in targeted groups, and older people are no exception. Study participants were asked to assess their health in four ways: overall physical health, overall mental health, number of chronic conditions, and whether they were depressed. The investigators found those with higher “everyday ageism” scores—who reported more exposure to demeaning messages about aging—faced higher health risks on all four measures. Exposure was more common among people from socially and economically disadvantaged groups. 

I’ve written at length about how ageism harms our health, and called for a national anti-ageism campaign to raise awareness of age-based stereotypes and the damage they do. First author of this new study Julie Ober Allen, of the University of Oklahoma, Norman, concurs. Her findings, she writes, suggest that “anti-ageism efforts could be a strategy for promoting older adult health and well-being.” So does the World Health Organization, which launched its superb Global Campaign to Combat Ageism in 2021 with the goal of increasing healthspan along with lifespan. We’ve got that terrific model and we’ve got a growing body of solid scientific evidence. Let’s make it happen.

Guest Post: Lazy Journalism and the Fallacy of Gerontocracy  

Journalist Paul Kleyman has been covering the “age beat” for almost 50 years, and no one is better at it. I’m indebted to his e-newsletter, Generations Beat Online for countless thoughtful analyses of aging-related social and economic policies, and as well as how these stories get covered. In the current issue (29.7) Paul tackles the current outbreak  of major media stories that propose fixing our broken democratic system by replacing older politicians with younger ones.  (This gripe is cyclical; see  my 2019 post, “Here we go again with “too old to be president.”) Here’s his critique, slightly edited, with emphasis added. It’s long. I strongly recommend the whole thing. If you only have time for one sentence, here it is: “Changing the guard from the gray to the dark or ropey blonde locks of youth would not alter the structural templates of power.”

While the hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol have provided the nation riveting testimony guided by RepresentativesBennie Thompson, D-Miss., age 74, and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., 55, there’s been a quieter kind of insurrection in the nation’s capital. It’s a bipartisan tsunami of ageism in politics and national media, conspiring to remove longstanding politicians, not based on their individual competence, but on the peculiar presumption that a sweep of generational replacement will somehow clear the path for positive change in Washington.

The current rash of age-centered political writing fails both in its demographic premise of inevitable stagnation in later life, and in meeting any reasonable standard of journalistic inquiry. One article in particular, in New York Magazine, by Rebecca Traister has received wide media attention. The article ostensibly profiles one individual, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., 88. Although her behavior has prompted justifiable concern for her leadership capability, the piece makes two unsubstantiated leaps.

First, the author jumps from the senator’s apparent confusion and reported memory lapses to speculation that she may have dementia. She states in the article, “It seems clear that Feinstein is mentally compromised, even if she’s not all gone.” Traister’s expert sources, though, are not geropsychiatric authorities, but a link to a newspaper article and a statement by “one person who works in California politics.” 

Provocatively, Traister suggests that Feinstein is declining from an organic brain condition, but offers no medical corroboration or discussion of alternative explanations for the senator’s slow or seemingly distracted comments. Grief, perhaps? Feinstein’s husband died shortly before their  half-hour interview. Gerontologists explain that often temporary memory impairment may follow such losses. The writer, though, doesn’t indicate whether the considered this or alternative explanations.

More disturbingly, the article metastasizes its speculation about Feinstein’s mental health into an attack on the entire body of older political leaders as the principal source of congressional gridlock. Traister, 47, seems to believe that a wave of Harry Potter’s youth wand over Capitol Hill would override the Senate’s 50/50 split and expunge the filibuster, thus setting sorely needed progress in motion. 

‘Dysfunctional’ Age Reporting

Preceding Traister’s grievance against Washington’s immobility, in May major media spotlighted similar charges by Republican éminence grise David Gergen, in his new book, Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made (Simon & Schuster).  Among his countless national interviews, such as with Walter Isaacson on PBS’s Amanpour & Company, he attributed the dysfunctional divisiveness gripping Washington, once again, to that ill-defined canard, “gerontocracy.” 

Gergen, noting that he recently turned 80, commented in the interview, “I can just see, you lose some of your focus, you lose some of your memory, your brain. It does not bring quite the same way.” He added, “There’s a lot of things that begin to happen to you in your age, and indeed in your 70s that I think the leaders who are in charge today– we shouldn’t be ruled by them going forward.” Revered in the nation’s capital as a stalwart of bipartisanship, having advised presidents of both parties, Gergen pointedly suggested that it’s time for the likes of former President Donald Trump, 76, whom he has long derided, and especially Sen. Feinstein, to make way for “fresh blood.” Most of those mentioned in this segment, though, are graying on the Dem side of the congressional aisle. 

Of course there are capable younger officials in leadership, such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, 40, a Democrat. Perhaps, though, Gergen could recommend a worthy younger member of his party who hasn’t been drummed out of the GOP. Or does he have in mind the leadership potential of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., age 48; Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., 40; Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., 36; or Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., 59, an alleged tour guide for the insurrection. 

As someone who just turned 77, I’ll allow that age does matter—but in both directions. Top-gun reflexes may flag, and energy levels noticeably dip, but as much research has shown, one’s ability and drive often recharges with purposeful goals and a little help from one’s friends. As experience kicks in, people compensate for changes and may excel.

Among those Gergen and others believe are candidates for retirement without regard for their mental capacity have been Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 80; and House Majority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 82. These and others anyone might mention are as keen of mind as their voters may want representing them – or want to unseat for their political prowess and experience. What about the chair of powerful Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., 80. Earlier in June, Sanders vigorously challenged GOP establishmentarian, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, 67 in a debate on Fox News, of all networks. Agree with Sanders or not, no one would ever accuse the consistently progressive Sanders of toeing the party line. 

The ‘Silver Tsunami’

In her new bookBreaking the Age Code  (William Morrow/Harper Collins)Yale social psychologistBecca Levy, PhD., observes, “Some politicians, economists and journalists are wringing their hands over what they call ‘the silver tsunami,’ but they’re missing the point. The fact that so many people are getting to experience old age, and doing so in better health, is one of society’s greatest achievements. It’s also an extraordinary opportunity to rethink what it means to grow old.” 

Unlike any other consumer-press book on how to age richer, happier and sexier, Breaking the Age Code is researched-based at every step, often with Levy’s own widely replicated studies over the past quarter century. Most prominently, she has shown that the pervasive negativity about aging, in American culture in areas from media to health care, actually limits people’s health status and longevity. 

Levy’s milestone research, which she presented to the Senate Special Committee on Aging in 2002, showed that people who reach late life with positive age beliefs live on average 7.5 years longer those with a dismal view of the years ahead for them. Among her later findings, negative attitudes often can be reversed with measurably positive results. Optimistic research on aging, such as by Levy, or in Tracey Gendron’s new book, Ageism Unmasked  (Steerforth Press/Penguin Random House), do get coverage in feature pages or specialized media. For instance, Gendron’s work, was just featured in a Healthjournalism.org blog). 

Also, Newsweek and other outlets, such as the “Get What’s Yours” blog on Substack, by respected retirement finance writer, Phil Moeller, just wrote up the new study published in JAMA  finding that 93% of a sample of 2000 older Americans said they “regularly  experienced some form of ageism.” The researchers show that continual ageist slights, intended or not, may damage one’s health over time because many people internalize the constant negativity.

But the exciting findings from them or other experts, frequently reported by generations-beat journalists, seldom gets into the top news sections, or on online landing pages. So evidence-based research on aging (and ageism) is easily outshouted in age-biased news or opinion pieces. At the New York Times, for example, although Paula Span’s fine “New Old Age” column  appears biweekly in the “Science Times” section, this story ran on the front page:  “Should Biden Run in 2024? Democratic Whispers of ‘No’ Start to Rise,” by Washington reporters Reid J. Epstein and Jennifer Medina (June 12, 2022). 

The story reads in part, “Interviews with nearly 50 Democratic officials, from county leaders to members of Congress, as well as with disappointed voters who backed Mr. Biden in 2020, reveal a party alarmed about Republicans’ rising strength and extraordinarily pessimistic about an immediate path forward. . . . To nearly all the Democrats interviewed, the president’s age — 79 now, 82 by the time the winner of the 2024 election is inaugurated — is a deep concern about his political viability.’”

Epstein and Medina include this apt defense from David Axelrod, chief strategist for Barack Obama: “Biden doesn’t get the credit he deserves for steering the country through the worst of the pandemic, passing historic legislation, pulling the NATO alliance together against Russian aggression and restoring decency and decorum to the White House,’ Mr. Axelrod added. ‘And part of the reason he doesn’t is performative. He looks his age and isn’t as agile in front of a camera as he once was, and this has fed a narrative about competence that isn’t rooted in reality.’” White House coverage does show him handling a grueling global workload without the record number of tee-times logged in by his predecessor.

The bulk of the article quotes reactions to Biden’s age … [from various people calling for] “a younger person” and “fresh, bold leadership.” The Times article defaults to what social scientists call “the fundamental attribution error,” as Yale’s Becca Levy put it in her book “The popular narrative of aging as a time of inevitable mental and physical decline is incorrect,” Levy writes. She adds, “This line of thinking gets cause and effect mixed up.”

OK, Boomer Basher

A more plainly prejudicial piece is“Why Are We Still Governed by Baby Boomers and the Remarkably Old?” by Yuval Levin (June 13, 2022). One would expect a conservative viewpoint from someone like Levin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a regular NYT Opinion contributor. But why do the editors allow such prime space for writing critically of people based on their demographic category while providing no factual basis for its assertion of fated decline with years?

Levin’s article begins, “America’s top political leaders are remarkably old. It then itemizes the ages of people in key federal leadership roles. Would the Times run a comparable essay if it opened, instead, “America’s top political leaders are remarkably ethnic”?  Arguing that there’s poor age balance among top government leadership, Levin, 45, particularly champions more inclusion of Gen Xers. Perhaps, he’s too embarrassed to mention the waffling over Trump’s Big Lie by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., 57. Levin declares, “Middle-aged leadership may be exactly what we now require.” How about January 6 rally speaker Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, 58? Not who he had in mind? What other qualifications might Levin and his conservative thinktank colleagues like to see in charge?

Rebecca Traister’s profile of Sen. Feinstein so excited mainstream media colleagues, that Time’s liberal columnist Jamelle Bouie devoted his June 14 entry to her story, headlined, “The Gerontocracy of the Democratic Party Doesn’t Understand That We’re at the Brink.”  Her article also garnered effusive praise at CNN and a lengthy interview by Mary Louise Kelly on NPR’s All Things Considered (“Why a phone conversation with Sen. Feinstein Worried This Reporter” (June 13, 2022). 

Raising longstanding Washington concern over congressional seniority rules, Traister told Kelly, “The Senate works by offering increased power to those who’ve been there for the longest. It’s not necessarily just individuals who want to stay and increase their own authority. It also is an enticement for the states that wind up electing them and reelecting them,” as those officials deliver increasing appropriations back home. Traister, though, did not pursue that promising direction, such as by delving into an analysis of rules and policies that tend to cement certain people as decisionmakers. Instead, she descended into a generational smear. Her article fails to demonstrate persuasively the functional, operational harm that younger leaders or a more age diverse leadership would moderate.

Traister commented to Kelly, “Diane Feinstein is not alone. We are run by a gerontocracy on both the Democratic and Republican sides.” That is, journalists from at least two major news organizations failed to question the writer’s leap from a specific critique of one person to a sweeping indictment of the political system based entirely on age. If merely eliminating people of a certain age would curtail the entrenchment of misguided policies, what about Rep. Elise StefanikR-NY, 37. A Trump supporters who embraces conspiracy theories and voted against confirming President Biden after personally witnessing the January 6 attack, she remains on a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, which Congress chartered to promote democracy around the world.

In her article, Traister wrote, “But the fact that many of her colleagues, on their best days, are less acute than Feinstein on her worst is exactly the kind of dismal, institutionally warped logic that has left us governed by eldercrats who will not live long enough to have to deal with the consequences of  their failures.” Some people, at least, resonate more with the story of an elder who was asked why he bothered to plant an acorn for a tree he’d not live to enjoy. He replied, “So that my grandchildren will someday think of me as they sit in its shade.”

One who has famously said she’d like to retire is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. As a nonpartisan San Francisco voter who has taken many issues with her leadership over the years, I’ve not been alone in feeling grateful that Pelosi has been at the helm through the passage of the Affordable Care Act, two impeachments, pandemic relief and more. Even her toughest detractors can’t deny her legislative skill, and, I’ll add, her moral integrity.

A Journalist’s Non-Diagnosis

I’ve also had the chore of deciding whether or not to mark my ballot for Feinstein since her years on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisor. Traister’s review of the senator’s dogged liberalism is often astute. But nothing in the article justifies her crossing into speculation that Feinstein’s slow responses and apparent memory lapses result from “dementia,” even after she disingenuously told Kelly, “I’m not in a position to diagnose here.” Many San Francisco voters would share Traister’s dismay over how out of touch the senator can be, but that sentiment goes back for decades, as it would the constituents of many long-time politicians. 

Traister was particularly appalled by Feinstein’s compliments to Sen. Graham, after he championed the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Appallingly fawning but was that any more than standard political collegiality for a friendly face across the aisle. Remember how the diametrically opposed judicial forces of Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg bonded in friendship at the opera? 

The writer told NPR’s Kelly how Feinstein’s “sunny and impervious optimism about the progress that’s being made” in their half-hour interview “betrayed a kind of disconnection from our current circumstances.” Or, perhaps, a wary official was merely parsing her words in a short interview with a reporter. Only last week President Biden spoke of his “optimism for the future.” That’s what politicians do. Reporters may judge, but a mental-health evaluation requires evidence Traister’s piece fails to verify.

By What Standard?

However prejudicial (and lazy) the ill-applied language of “gerontocracy” may be, these journalists have yet to provide a meaningful examination of the deep and self-perpetuating flaws in the US political system in ways pointing to solutions. Changing the guard from the gray to the dark or ropey blonde locks of youth would not alter the structural templates of power. 

Writers as capable as Traister, Bouie, Epstein, Medina, and especially the journalist-historian Isaacson, are likely aware of political science and organizational theories of congressional structure that may suggest at least some realistic approaches for restraining perverse incentives while also optimizing democratic engagement. What questions might good political writers and editors ask about the basic standards of integrity for evaluating office holders and seekers? Beyond the obvious, such as investigating corruption, what essential questions should media entities frame in assessing the effectiveness of individual political actors or decisional bodies? 

What list of functional questions might prompt writers toward second thoughts that might turn a cooler eye on their own emotional responses? For example, I’ve often consulted guidelines in judging reporting competitions and either elevated or reduced my initial level of enthusiasm for an entry when nudged to think more objectively about a proposal’s reach and impact. Regarding politics, at the outset, I suggest borrowing from Hippocrates with: “First, do no harm.” 

One guideline I’ve long kept in mind was recommended by the late editor and publisher Robert Maynard, namesake of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. He urged reporters to view every story through the spectrum of class, race, gender, geography and generation. (I’d add religion.) What other standards of conduct and social impact might fairly swab the nostrils of politicians to determine whether their rules or operations need to be vaccinated for our political health? 

Fifty years ago this summer, I began writing my book, Senior Power: Growing Old Rebelliously (Glide,1974) on the politics of aging. While I’ve seen considerable advances on racism and sexism–including exposures of underlying prejudice–I’ve been amazed and, with deepening sighs, dismayed about the many permutations of bias toward people strictly based on their age. It’s nothing less than scapegoating. What’s worse is that facile blaming obviates honest queries into problems that might lead to a genuine understanding of society’s problems, such as entrenchment that regiments people, lockstep in the wrong direction, regardless of their demographic identities. It’s the job of journalism to peel back the superficial, the opaque, the skin-deep distractions to expose the sinew of our problems. How else might real solutions be exposed to light?

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day: it’s a thing. It shouldn’t have to be.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which was launched in 2006, falls on June 15th. That happens to be my mother’s birthday, which I find darkly amusing and which probably has something to do with my ambivalence around the event. It’s terrific that World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is a thing. It’s awful that it has to be.

Every year an estimated one in ten Americans over age 60—over seven million people in the US alone—experiences some form of abuse. (This can take many forms—financial, emotional, physical, or sexual—as well as exploitation and neglect.) Those numbers were undoubtedly worsened by extreme isolation during the main COVID19 pandemic. We’ve also seen a chilling increase in hate crimes targeting Asian-Americans, many of whom have been older.

A staggering 95% of elder abuse cases go undetected. Nonetheless, unlike domestic violence or child abuse, we don’t talk about it much. Neither do many victims, who are embarrassed by their vulnerability, ashamed to ask for help, and—worst of all—think they may not deserve it. Over half of abusers are family members, which doesn’t make it legal but does make it harder to report.

What else underlies these appalling statistics? Ignorance and aversion on the part of the general public. Raised to value youth and speed, we grossly underestimate the quality of life of older people, as well as its value. We project our fears. We turn away, reluctant to acknowledge that we, too, are aging and some impairment awaits us all. And when we see people as “other” than ourselves, their welfare seems less of a human right.

Ageism (discrimination on the basis of age) is a new idea to lots of people. Many are even less familiar with ableism—discrimination on the basis of how our brains or bodies function. Ageism and ableism underlie the belief that being non-disabled is “normal” and that leading meaningful, desirable lives means staying youthful and disability-free. These prejudices inform and compound each other, the “ugly dance” to which the title of my new talk refers: “The Ugly Dance How Ageism and Ableism Enable Abuse.” (For the full description of the talk, and/or to hire me for your event, please contact the Lavin Agency.)

Ageism and ableism stand between everyone—especially the most vulnerable among us—and the safe and comfortable old age we all deserve. We have the skills and the tools to disrupt this dance. In a world of longer lives, we can’t afford not to

“Age Against the Machine – Ending Ageism in the Workplace”

That’s the kickass-if-I-say-so-myself title of my new talk, which debuted earlier this month, in real life, at the annual conference of the Financial Planners Association. The catalyst was my pre-event call with the organizers. “There’s grousing from our older members, who pretty much invented the field and feel their contributions aren’t acknowledged,” they told me. “Meanwhile the Millennials think their older colleagues should get out of the way.” Sound familiar?

I’ve been on a tear for a while now about the need to wean ourselves off generational labels in general. Once I started digging into research on age bias in the workplace, I realized there was plenty more to say about why generational finger-pointing is so widespread. It’s convenient, it’s tempting, and it’s lucrative. A whole industry has sprung up urging worried managers to consult pricey experts about how to cope with real and significant generational differences. In fact, most needs are universal. Work-life balance is no more important to Millennials than it is to other employees. Everyone needs mental health days. Everyone appreciates flexible work schedules.  Age has far less to do with affinity than we think it does. Although tensions are real, an ageist culture makes it easy to blame conflicts on age differences instead of considering other explanations for what employees do, or don’t, have in common.   

Generational stereotypes contaminate every corner of the workplace, from decision-making to how colleagues perceive and treat each other. They obscure the rich and complex reality. They foster scapegoating—”Gen Z is so picky, what’s a manager to do?” They make people feel devalued and excluded. They undermine the solidarity and collective action necessary to implement any social good, including work-related fundamentals like affordable child care and a decent retirement. Discrimination in the workplace provides ideological cover for a whole set of unacceptable business practices that enable employers to take advantage of workers at both ends of the age spectrum. It’s not a too-many-old people problem, it’s a disposable-human problem.

There’s plenty more in “Age Against the Machine,” including ten ways to detect and eliminate age bias in your organization or workplace. For a full description, and/or to book me for your event, please contact the Lavin Agency.