#ageing #ageism #elderly
Ageism is something many don’t recognize today as a concern worthy of their time. 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, etc. The subjects were depicted with large noses, scraggly hair, wart-like lesions, and sagging facial features. When I saw was how offensive the cartoons were, I wrote the sender and asked him to never send anything like it ever again.
Cartoons of analogous derogatory content depicting African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics or Jews—any identifiable group—would be dismissed as racist and offensive.
“Why are you offended?” my friend 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 (posted in 2014), “and ageism rages in America. We don’t respect our elders. Cartoons like the ones you sent me revile older people.” Perhaps I should have said, “I’m not black either, but that doesn’t keep me from being offended at racist humor.”
Laugh with or . . .
I can allow that some humor is an attempt to see the trials of old age in lighter vein, as if laughing at ourselves makes our troubles 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 because of dementia or hearing loss. The few people I know who suffer from these conditions are not laughing with us. Some know they are being laughed at.
Laughter does not cushion cruelty; it only mixes the message, as if to suggest no harm was intended. Be a sport, in other words, even if the joke is at your expense. Few acknowledge it takes a bigger person to bear the brunt of the jest than is asked of the person poking fun.
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. 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, curmudgeons.” 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 an 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 when we want to express respect or praise. Mention “sage” in a conversation, and most will think you are talking about a spice.
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 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.
The Inside Joke . . .
I am willing to make allowances for the inside joke, when one person of age may chide another. Laughter between two people about a shared condition can be a tonic. The same cannot be said for insults hurled indiscriminately by outsiders to the public at large. African-Americans can kid each other about the social conventions of their race, but they don’t hold their brothers and sisters up to public ridiculed. They know the consequences of doing so. They know the jokes that indulge prejudice end up as fodder for racists.
Advancing into the eighth or ninth decade in life requires a courage like none experience at any other stage of life. The young see 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 seems a foolish concession to a trend. The warmth of a voice, the tone of care and respect are not communicated in the playing-card size screens of multi-function digital devices. People wrestling with the ravages of loneliness want human contact and touch, not emojis. Technology isolates. It is replacing intimacy with immediacy. Under the illusion of staying in touch, we are withdrawing from one another. We become more remote. Incremental abandonment, if you will. Dying ends all intimacy with loved ones; those immediately at hand and those at a distance. Why approximate it in our daily communication.
Long Gone . . .
Americans have always taken pride in the rigorous spirit that drove our ancestors to leave the old world, cross an ocean, march 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 by way of physical labor as they advanced in age. Gabby Hayes, in the role of a bumbling sidekick comes to mind. 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 late 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. Perhaps it will no longer be funny when the joke is really on us. Then we will realize that the disrespect in the checkout line, on the subway, waiting for a table, or seeking help from customer service is something we have created and now must endure. What passes as humor too often morphs into disrespect and indifference. Let’s just be certain our amusement isn’t inviting derision.
Perhaps the same dedicated energies to reduce racism in our society could be channeled as well toward eradicating ageism.
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