Ageism in America is deeply imbedded, largely unconscious and hardly ever confronted.
A reader recently sent me a series of cartoons about elderly people. Each panel poked fun at the commonplace inconveniences or afflictions of old age; i.e. incontinence, forgetfulness, general decrepitude, impotence, diminished libido, ineptitude with new gadgets, etc. The subjects were depicted in an unflattering manner with large noses, scraggly hair, wart-like lesions, and sagging facial features. I didn’t look at the entire collection. What I saw was offensive enough. I wrote the sender, told him I found the material disrespectful to the elderly, and asked him to refrain for forwarding anything like it ever again.
Cartoons of analogous derogatory content depicting African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics or Jews – any identifiable group – would be viewed as racist and offensive.
I told another friend, who knew the sender, about my reaction to the cartoons. “Why?” he countered, You’re not old,” as if to suggest that anything goes as long as it doesn’t apply to me.
“I’m 75,” I replied, “and I think that ageism rages in America. We don’t respect our elders. Cartoons like the ones I received revile and ridicule older people.” Perhaps if I have said, “I’m not black either,” and I would have made my point more emphatically.
Humor Doesn’t Always Lighten the Burden . . .
I can allow that some humor is an attempt to see the trials of old age in a humorous light, as if laughing at ourselves makes our troubles somehow easier to endure. On the other hand, there really isn’t anything funny about staying connected to a colostomy bag, using a catheter, needing a walker, or becoming a trial to family and friends because of dementia or hearing loss. The few people I know who suffer from these conditions are not laughing with us. They know they are being laughed at.
Ridicule directed at any group because of their race, ethnic origin, religious beliefs or age isn’t funny. It’s cruel. Laughter does not cushion its cruelty; it only mixes the message, as if to suggest no harm was intended – something roughly akin to punching a person in the face and then saying nothing was meant by it. Be a sport even if the joke is at your expense.
I was on the golf course with my usual foursome, all of us in our 70’s. We approached one tee and looked over to see another foursome putting on a nearby green. “Look, you guys. There’s a bunch of old guys playing golf.” Everyone turned to look. Then they turned back to me. Then they laughed. When a person stands at the threshold of old age, the portal to venerability, the gate to the so-called “golden years,” he or she doesn’t feel old at all. A youthful heart still beats within the breast. An eagerness to prevail persists. Most of what we were taught about becoming old is simply not true. We have been schooled in prejudice.
All of our lives we have heard of “old farts, codgers, duffers, galoots, coots, fogies, geezers, hags, biddies, shrews, battle-axes, bats, crones.” These are the N words for the elderly. Almost all carry the connotation of “old.” To make the point more emphatically, American English offers almost no positive appellations to designate a elder of worth, one who has loved well throughout life and achieved in an exemplary manner. We are very efficient in our negative expressions, in other words, but pressed to be verbose when we want to express respect or praise. I shared this observation with others, and many volunteered the word “sage.”
“OK,” I conceded reluctantly, but when I asked my listeners for the last time they heard term used other than to describe a spice, none could recall.
List Six Synonyms for a Lovable, Wise Older Person . . .
As humans advance in age, of course their capacities decline. None argues the fact. Gerontologists tell us that the elderly are at a disadvantage when they are pressured to make quick decisions. Short term memory becomes porous. Physical stamina diminishes. These are common observations. If they were extraordinary, we would most likely react with compassion. So why ridicule and censure? Children are not demeaned for their lack of knowledge and limited physical prowess. The physically handicapped are not reviled as a being unworthy of our respect and affection. Yet the predictable incapacities of growing older remain a staple of cruel humor.
I am also willing to make allowances for the inside joke, which is when one person of age may chide another. Laughter between two people about a shared condition can be a tonic. The same can not be said for insults hurled indiscriminately by outsiders.
Advancing into the eight or ninth decade in life requires a courage like none experienced at any other stage of life. The young take for granted that an ocean of time lies ahead of them. They have the energy and resources to distract themselves. Most middle-aged and younger people don’t give much thought to their mortality. Persons in their retirement years rarely see a day pass, however, without wondering how much time they have left. Their priorities undergo a restructuring that may seem out of step with youthful onlookers. Being dressed in the latest casual fashion takes second place to stretching the pension check. Learning how to text when one is frequently forced to accept being ignored by users of iPods or similar devices simply reinforces the decision never to become accomplished at such high-tech rudeness. After all, dying ends all intimacy with loved ones; those immediately at hand and those at a distance. Dying may also mean the end to the self, a grave fate to contemplate at any age.
Other Cultures; Other Values . . .
Other cultures, Asian and African especially, revere the elderly and value their wisdom. Americans have always taken pride in the rigorous spirit that drove our ancestors to leave the old world, cross an ocean. drive into the unknown wilderness, and put their backs into carving out the farms, towns and cities that created our nation. In this enterprise, the elderly slowed everyone down, burdened families with their dependency, and generally contributed little as they advanced in age. Gabby Hayes, in the role of a bumbling sidekick, dramatizes the image. If the early colonialists and pioneers are in any way the origin of the prejudice, it’s time to recognize that era is as long gone as the age of slavery.
As boomers edge toward old age, attitudes may change. Americans are living longer. In 1940, the life expectancy for an American male was forty-seven. Today it is in the mid-seventies. It will be interesting to see if having a larger percentage of the total population in their advanced years will change the prevailing, if often unconscious, prejudice of today. In the meantime, perhaps the same dedicated energies that have reduced racism in our society could be channeled as well toward eradicating ageism.
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