We’re all old people in training

“We’re old, we’re bold, behold!” That’s a phrase that I love. It’s from the book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhiteavailable in the Whitehorse Public Library. This book changed many of my ideas about aging and gave me renewed energy to explore this journey that we all share. Applewhite describes herself as an “old person in training,” an idea first coined by geriatrician Joanne Lynn. It acknowledges that no matter our gender, race, class, or age, we share this common path. It challenges us to truly look at and listen to older people and recognize the underlying messages in our society that stereotype older people. From this point on in this story, I’m going to refer to older people as “olders.”

What is it that makes some of my younger olders so reluctant to admit they’re collecting their pension, qualify for the senior discount, or that they’re a member of the Golden Age Society, ElderActive, or Yukon Council on Aging? I think it’s ageism. The term was coined in 1968 by Dr. Robert Butler, a gerontologist and psychiatrist. When someone assumes another is too old to do something and sets a limit on activity, appearance, or relationship, that’s ageism. It can apply to young as well as old. 

I admit I’ve been guilty of thinking “oh no, another senior moment,” or “I’m losing it.”  When I’ve forgotten to do something, I have used those phrases. Who says that people 30 or 40 years younger than me are never forgetful? Maybe I’ve forgotten to do something because I’ve had a very busy schedule, or perhaps it wasn’t a priority for me. Granted, if it occurs regularly, or others often notice it, maybe it is an issue and I’ll get it checked out. In the meantime, I’ll continue to make to-do lists, update my calendar daily and practice being mindful—being here and now and savouring each moment.

While people may not say that old people are boring, out of it, or incompetent, they may convey this through their actions by ignoring or dismissing the ideas of olders. Olders have a wider range of interests and experiences than younger folks, merely because they’ve lived longer. Take a moment to consider that olders can range in age from 55 years and up. You don’t assume that youngsters, from toddlers to 20-year-olds have the same interests, skills and abilities. Why would you assume that olders are all cut from the same cloth and have the same interests and abilities? Get to know your olders—whether neighbour, relative, co-worker, or customer—and you will likely find an interesting character with amazing stories and a wealth of experience under that grey hair. 

Next time you’re at a gathering, why not take time to mix with people younger and older than you. There’s much value in intergenerational mixing. We’re constantly bombarded by ads, media and everyday comments about staying young. We seldom challenge them, or are even aware they are ageist.

I decided to keep my grey hair, my wrinkles and my liver spots. I admit some days when I see my reflection in a store window, I’m surprised by the slightly stooped, old lady staring back at me. The years have slipped by so quickly I still think I’m 20 years younger! I’m happy not to have to worry about the “power suits,” coloured hair, or anti-wrinkle treatments. Have you ever thought about who benefits the most from this industry? 

People are denying their age and wanting to appear younger because society tends to devalue olders and believe that old people are a burden on society. In fact, olders continue to contribute to the community as volunteers, leaders, caregivers, paid employees, taxpayers and consumers. Their contributions have often not been measured and, although they contribute economically, they also provide their skills, experience and knowledge for many of the non-profit and recreational groups in communities.

Many olders internalize this ageism and don’t believe they have any right to ask for help, question those in authority, or speak up when they have been harmed.

As Applewhite suggests, we need a radical age movement. She encourages some of the following actions:

  • Challenge ageism and reject demeaning stereotypes in ourselves, in friends and relatives, in practices, policies and organizations.
  • Recognize we’re all an “old person in training” and create new models that break down barriers to full participation at all stages of life.
  • Inspire and help develop caring communities that bring together generations offering their gifts at all ages.
  • Recognize our own mortality by bringing death and dying out of the closet.

I support Applewhite’s idea that “age pride is for everyone.” She suggests it’s time for “we’re old, we’re bold, behold!” to join the playlist of social movements.

Aging with grace