More than a word — it can affect someone’s quality of life
By Ann Dobbins

Have you ever noticed how some individuals love to clump people into a box or category? I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve told people that I work with seniors, and they respond with some gross generalization that lumps all seniors and mature families into one big homogeneous bunch. “Don’t you just find that they are so…”And what follows can be flattering, or unintentionally not so flattering, but in any event, it is stereotyping.

Stereotyping is never well-advised and definitely not appropriate when referring to seniors. After all, “seniors” constitute a very large group of people. A conservative definition for “senior” is people aged 65 or older. When considering that more and more people are living to be ninety, one quickly realizes the scope and diversity of this group. We would never clump others from such a massive demographic together — can you imagine referring to a ten-year old in the same context as a 30-year-old?

The stereotypes that people hold, have a way of seeping out and alienating those around them. You know what I’m talking about — those back-handed compliments such as, “You look so good for your age, ”or my favourite,“ I hope I look that good when I’m her age” to which I’m thinking, “Sister, you don’t look that good now!” These types of comments are generally intended as compliments and most seniors choose to graciously accept them as such. However, there are times when people’s insensitivity (and perhaps ignorance) goes too far, resulting in unfair prejudices. Recently, I heard someone who thinks of themselves as a seniors’ advocate, say that they will just hang-up their car keys when they turn 80,as most people over the age of 80 probably shouldn’t be on the road. What? How outrageous a statement is that? What if you still have places to go and people to see and things to get done? The issue at hand is one of ability — not of age! And what about research that states for every, one “bad” senior driver, there are X number of wonderful senior drivers? How dare someone say that people over the age of 80 should just hang-up their keys!

What about reports of physicians not investigating symptoms or concerns of seniors, because they are all too comfortable attributing the symptoms to aging? This is a serious matter, as people
may not receive appropriate diagnosis and intervention, for a treatable condition or disease. What about issues such as mandatory retirement, the widespread belief that seniors become somewhat
asexual, or the assumption that seniors are old fashioned, rooted in the past and unable to change? These beliefs are so limiting. Sadly, I have had seniors say, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” to which I respond, “Oh yes, you can!” We know that improving one’s lifestyle in terms of diet, exercise, engagement and mental stimulation, can positively impact the senior’s health and well-being. Again, it is a matter of ability, not age!

It is interesting to note that the percentage of seniors in our society is growing at an unprecedented rate, yet we seem to have a youth-obsessed culture. This obsession with youth, affects how older adults are viewed, as well as how older adults view themselves. It is challenging to find films and magazines that depict attractive, purposeful seniors — yet any grocery/drug store checkout is packed with scantily clad, teeny-types being quoted about how to live fuller, happier lives with flat abs and a tight bottom — like they’ve had years to defy gravity or to face life’s challenges! Sadly, most of us are never taught that there is beauty in smile lines or silver hair. As a society, we tend to perpetuate the misconception that youth trumps experience, acquired skills, maturity and life lessons — which is perplexing because deep
down, I believe we all know differently.

There are many hypotheses as to why ageism exists, but perhaps the one which seems to be the most common and widely cited, is directly correlated with our society’s fear of death. Like most prejudices, we create and exaggerate differences between ourselves and others; thereby, creating distances (a comfort buffer) so that we do not have to acknowledge that we are all the same. With ageism, it seems we are insulating ourselves from the fact that a long life leads to old age and ultimately death. Unlike other “isms” (such as racism and sexism), ageism is not static; thus, everyone will eventually be subjected to ageism unless they die at an early age. So, what better argument could there be for stopping to think before we make comments about our older citizens, for as we all know, it is only a matter of time…

Ann Dobbins is the founder of Memory Matters.
This article was originally printed in the March/April 2010 issue of Fifty-Five Plus.