Ageism: An Aging Attitude Adjustment

Eight of a nine-part series of articles on ageism.

Anticipation. Do you remember when you were twelve and couldn’t wait to be old enough to get a driver’s license? Or when you were 16 and couldn’t wait to move out on your own and out from under your parent’s thumb? Now imagine you’re in your early 60s and can’t wait to retire and get to all those projects that are half-complete or you dream to begin one day.

What happens to that anticipation as we grow past the honeymoon phase of retirement into the stage of becoming an older adult? If we accept negative stereotypes of aging when we are young, they will start to creep into our minds and make the future look bleak. The good news is we can change a negative view to a positive one with a little aging attitude adjustment.

Aging past a pre-set definition of old age is not life on the downside of a hill lived in full-throttle decline. With awareness of what ageism is, we can turn that vision of a downhill slide into one of continued peaks and valleys that we’ve always known.

It’s not true that we are destined to face declining health and dismal outcomes through the aging process. I see this outdated assumption challenged every day at the Fergus Falls Senior Center where I work. Members are getting stronger and more engaged as they age. Some exercise regularly and are increasing their physical strength and endurance. Some volunteer at the schools working with children, while yet others are raising their grandchildren. Some provide important skill-sets for government and nonprofit organizations.

If we are open, we will find in older age that we face challenges and opportunities just the same as we did when we were younger. For example, did you ever have to move away from your friends because of a better job in a different community, or were you transferred as part of a military family?

We may face the challenges of moving as well in older age; whether that’s downsizing to an apartment to allow more time to travel and spend less time on yard work, or relocation to another town to live closer to family. We might choose to move to escape the brutal Minnesota winters.

As we age, we are given more opportunity to spend our time in altruistic ways instead of just working for a paycheck to cover the bills. We’re more flexible if we want to start the job of our dreams or a second career; one that might bring more joy than money.

We will not inevitably become less competent as we age, use more sick leave than our younger selves did, or be more forgetful; especially if we implement mindfulness in our overall lives. We will have a lot to contribute from a lifetime of experience. We will live a fulfilling life instead of spending it battling the aging process.

Ageism diminishes us and our abilities in approximately one-third of our lives. One-third of it! Facing ageism head on is the only just thing to do. We cannot live in a just, moral society while any type of discrimination exists, including ageism. Individuals and society must challenge and eliminate the negative stereotypes of aging that permeate our culture today.

We should start by teaching our children that old age is a natural part of life as surely youth is; and teach by example that everyone is deserving of respect and dignity. We must seek out and challenge our own implicit biases that we have carried with us since childhood. Then we must strive to not perpetuate them.

We can learn to speak out against ageism when we understand what it is, bringing awareness to others who are unaware of ageism or their implicit attitudes towards aging. Doing so gently is important to awaken the light of understanding within others, rather than the darkness of defensiveness.

We can build the social structures and programs that support the aging process with dignity and accessibility for all. We must reassess existing programs and implement the necessary changes needed to ensure their sustainability. Re-structuring public policies on issues like work, retirement, transportation, housing, health care, and community building can make the most of the momentum that is building in our older adult population to our communities’ and country’s benefit.

Society must once again assign the value to older adults that we deserve: the significance of a lifetime of learning that comes from persevering through trials, tribulations, and triumphs. Communities must be well-equipped to engage us and must continue to tap the wisdom that only time can instill. Communities on the local level and society as a whole must use the treasure trove of knowledge anchored within our experience.

A just society would do no less.

See 2019 Ageism Series Bibliography for sources quoted.

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