A few days ago I was at the gym going through my usual strength training regimen. I approached a young man, probably in his late teens, using the leg press machine that was the last on my to-do list. He told me he’d soon be finished so I decided to wait nearby.
While he was wiping down the machine, I went to scout out the additional weights that I needed to add to the two larger weights on either side of the machine. When I returned, I found the young fellow removing the three weights on each side of the machine. I knew immediately why he was removing the weights and decided to approach him on the matter.
I asked if he assumed that because I was an older woman, I wouldn’t be able to use the heavier weights that he was removing. He admitted that was the case. When I informed him that I use the 2 heavier weights plus the additional 25lb weights I retrieved, he appeared to be in disbelief. His mouth hung open when I told him I was 70 years of age.
We continued to have a productive conversation about the fact that he assumed, because I was an older woman, I wouldn’t be able to use the machine with the greater amount of weight. Initially he thought he was being polite by removing the weights for an older person but, after our conversation, realized there were ageist beliefs that were part of what he was doing.
I continued thinking about the assumptions people make about older people, their capabilities and the possibilities that exist for them at any age. I recall many who have achieved greatness at advanced ages, including Werner Berger, who is a Guinness Book of World Records holder for being the oldest North American to have climbed the highest peaks on all 7 continents.
Many people who hold negative beliefs about older adults are not aware of them, or tend to disregard them altogether. They may manifest them in a variety of ways. Though their actions may be unintentional, they may still be hurtful, (i.e., talking about an older person in their presence as if they are not there) I have heard this from many older adults and have witnessed it, especially in health care settings. This is especially common when the older adults have significant cognitive loss. It is a complete misconception to think that a person with cognitive impairment is unaware or does not know what is going on. I’ve had many nursing home residents voice, “they think I don’t know they are talking about me but I do. I wish they would just talk to me like I’m a person.”
People may alter their speech pattern to accommodate an older person who they assume must have hearing loss or cognitive impairment, this is most often seen by reducing speech rate, using simple words and shorter sentences, Once the older adult senses this, it immediately reinforces the negative aging stereotype and has the potential to affect a person’s self-esteem and impact their willingness to socially interact moving forward.
Health care professionals, including doctors, nurses, social workers, etc. are not immune from falling into the negative aging-attitude trap. Doctors have been found to mistakenly attribute medical problems to the “natural aging process” and may be less likely to recommend preventive care to older adults. A study as far back as 1987 by Greene, Hoffman, Charon & Adelman, found that doctors were less likely to question older patents about psychosocial topics, including depression and anxiety. In addition, a 2013 study of over 30,000 middle age and older adults diagnosed with arthritis found that physicians may be less likely to recommend exercise to older adults as a means of managing this condition rather than to those age 45 to 64. The recommendation for lower incomed older adults was even less.
In addition, negative perceptions of older adults leads to over protection and increased dependence and helplessness. Conversely, positive perceptions of aging lead to autonomy and continued independence.
What are some of the solutions to counteract ageist attitudes and beliefs?
Be honest with yourself about what your thoughts and words. This includes what you think and say about yourself, as well as others. Some common phrases associated with aging are:
I’m an old crow
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
You look good for your age
You don’t look like you’re ______
You are ____, and you still like to____?
He’s an old geezer
Over the hill
You’re still working?
When are you going to retire?
You have a smartphone?
60 is the new 40
He or she is _____ but is still sharp as a tack
Be aware of what others are saying in your family and your social circle. Listen carefully; ensure you are not laughing along. If you’re not laughing, but remain silent, remember that silence can connotes tacit approval or agreement. As with other stereotypes and prejudices, not voicing objection or correcting the prevailing view only serves to continue negative attitudes. Becoming aware includes becoming aware of yourself, as well as others.
Become vocal and object to, and correct, what you see and hear that reflects ageist attitudes or beliefs.
Finally, wherever you are on your age journey, consider taking stock of your lifestyle. Are you making conscious choices and engaging in activities which serve you well?
If not, what can you do that….
§ can have a beneficial effect on your own well-being;
§ dispel the prevailing view about what you can and cannot do, and
§ shift ageist beliefs by you towards you, and
§ by others towards you and others.
o programs you can join,
o habits you can change,
o attitudes you can embrace,
o connections you can make.
Embracing the possibilities builds confidence, ultimately alters perceptions about aging and promotes a more positive outlook on one’s overall ability.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that ageist attitudes are rooted in earlier ages. How many times have you heard someone turning thirty or forty dread reaching that milestone? I’ve heard younger adults say, “I’m getting up there”, or “I’m getting old”. Rather than dread, getting up there should imply achievement, experience, wisdom. Let’s encourage children from the earliest of ages to embrace their journey as an “evolving elder” as they continue into their elderhood years.
“In the midst of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer”
Email email@example.com for speaking engagements or to help your organization counteract ageism in the workplace and help develop an intergenerational and mutually respectful workforce.
Phyllis Ayman will be presenting her TEDx talk on Oct 28, 2023 at TEDx Deer Park in Brentwood, NY. Visit www.tedxdeerpark.com to purchase tickets for the event.