Our culture hates aging. And, as we so often do, we blame the person responsible: the elderly. Aging is a sign of approaching death, and no other culture is as afraid of death as we are. We don’t even say “died,” we have dozens of euphemisms. (For a really wide variety, follow theydidntdie on Instagram.)
Aging men are marginally OK. They are seen as powerful and experienced, “rugged” and “weathered.” Sam Elliot, who stars in the TV series The Ranch and the movie The Hero, is 73. Morgan Freeman, who seems to have been in every American movie made in the last 10 years, is 80. Michael Caine, who has had an astonishingly regular movie career (from 1956 onward) is 84. They are considered distinguished.
Woman have a different fate. Our culture has very limited ideas of beauty for women. Long hair, smooth and straight, preferably blond; teeth so white they require eclipse glasses to look at; flawless skin with full lips and no facial creases or surface wrinkles; a slender figure with no sagging, swinging, or dimpled skin; a color no darker than kraft paper; and always, always, a smile. It creates a narrow, high fence around what is acceptable and a rocky path of achievement that disintegrates after age 45.
Largely, these views comes from a time when women were only attractive when fertile, but we haven’t given up Paleo-judgment any more than the Paleo diet.
Women of a certain age no longer shut up and keep quiet. We speak up and stand up, and that is a giant threat to bosses, men who yell, “smile” at women, and younger women who may not have a lot of experience, or know how to be interesting, but have looks on their side.
Our culture (including the women in our culture) have had it beaten into our heads that attractive and young is the
baseline for worth. When we are no longer any of those, we get demeaned. Even worse, we get fired, let go, passed over and ignored.
Older adults (especially women) are told to “laugh at themselves” when made the butt of ageism jokes. We are told to laugh at mobility issues, limited eyesight, hearing loss, and dentures. Young people with the same afflictions have some cultural taboos about disabilities, but older people are expected to laugh along at their own expense.
What bothers me the most is that older adults often go along for the same reason we accepted bullying as kids. We go along to get along. It just adds strength to the argument that the elderly can safely be laughed at.
At a conference on death and dying this weekend, I polled the audience and was surprised at the variety and intensity of marginalization among the elderly. Choices are taken away, wishes ignored, horizons severely limited. Older people who want to die are kept alive without regard to the quality of their life. Medical personnel often become vague or outright lie to patients if they think “it wouldn’t go over well.”
People who live long enough to get old will experience the indignity every day. We get passed over in many ways. Restaurants seat us in the back, often by the bathroom, because we aren’t attractive enough to lure customers into the restaurant. When we are in a class, our raised hands don’t get called on, because we might ramble. We are never asked what we do for a living, because we are supposed to be retired. Older women must surely be grandmothers and therefor available to babysit for anyone in the building. If we are pulling a suitcase through the airport, it’s assumed we are on the way to visit grandchildren and not on a business trip. Patronizing voices call you sweetie or dearie and speak loudly and slowly, as if your mental capacity is limited.
Yes, I know there are many serious problems in our society. Problems that are inching us closer to the danger zone. The elderly in that society remember the past quite well, and often have historical understanding that can provide a solution. Ask us. Include us. Not all of us want you to git off our lawn.
–-Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing, a life coach and an end-of-life coach concentrating on legacy projects.