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ADDRESSING AGEISM

by Susan V. Bosak
Legacy Project

"

The best age
is the age
you are."
Louis Armstrong

This is the Age of Aging. It's the first time in history in which human beings can reasonably expect to live even close to what we presently think of as the entire lifespan, and there are more older people than ever before.

Today, an American at birth is expected to live 78 years compared to 47 years in 1900 – an additional 29 years. By the year 2030, 1 in every 5 Americans will be over 65. And the older population itself is getting older. Centenarians are actually the fastest-growing age group in the country. Card companies now even make special birthday cards for people who reach this magical age.

Addressing Ageism

Aging is not optional. We are all, in fact, aging from the moment we are born. If we're lucky, we get old. And yes, we all die. Aging is a lifelong process, and there's really no set age when people become "old." The biggest issue regarding aging and getting old is how we look at it – which isn't very well.

Saying that aging is "good" or "bad" is just as silly and simplistic as saying life is "good" or "bad." Life can be good and it can be bad. That's life. And that's aging. The problem is that we all – old and young – tend to have a negative attitude toward growing old, assign negative characteristics like unattractiveness and illness to being old, do not perceive anything positive about being old, and tend to prefer the company of the young and have limited contact with and knowledge of older people. But as demographics change, it's in all our best interests to create a new understanding of old age, one that gives us meaning and fulfillment throughout the life course, and create new life maps that help young and old get the most out of their entire lives.


Education is Key

We can't stay young forever. Aging is as natural as the changing seasons. But the natural process of aging has been overtaken by chemistry, surgery, and artifice. The media certainly doesn't promote aging as a process through which we can mature gracefully and positively. That doesn't sell product. Advertising is full of age-defying and age-correcting products, which promise unending happiness, social mobility, or the transformation of women, in particular, from being old and undesirable to being young and desirable. Is this the legacy we want to pass on to our children?

Because older people are more numerous, more affluent, and better educated than ever before, this demographic shift may work to change attitudes toward aging. We need to understand aging across the life course. Our exploration must be multidisciplinary, reaching into theory, philosophy, scientific research, communication and storytelling, social policy, activism, and self-understanding.

Education is key – both from the perspective of more people understanding aging, and from the perspective of how people will be when they become old. The more educated a person is, the more resources they have, and the more likely they are to be healthy, cognitively active, productive, and have a level of meaning and contentment in their life.

Why should today's children care about aging? Children's chances (in a developed nation) of surviving to a very old age are greater than at any time in history. They need to know how to live out that life as healthy, productive, effective individuals. They need to prepare to live their entire lifespan. Young people educated about aging are more likely to live a healthy lifestyle and maximize their chances of living long and living well. This obviously has benefits for the individual, as well as reduces the health care burden on society. These people will also be better able to care for aging relatives, neighbors, and friends. Most importantly, they will be less likely to engage in ageist discrimination and more willing to create a better, more supportive social environment.


Growing Up, Getting Old

The question isn't really whether children should learn about aging – because they are learning about aging and a multitude of other things whether we consciously teach them or not – but what they should learn about the lifelong process we call growing up and getting older.

Even before the age of five years, research shows children may have already internalized ideas that lead to ageism (age prejudice/stereotypes) and gerontophobia (fear of aging). Most children say they don't want to get "old." They express fears that if they were old, life wouldn't be much fun and they would soon die (keep in mind that for children, "old" is anyone over 30!). A boy commented that he was "really scared" to get old. It turned out that what he was "really scared" of was getting sick, which he equated with getting old. Children need to develop a more accurate understanding of aging and have positive role models in their life.

Grandparents are living, breathing models of older adulthood and aging. Bringing grandparents, and other older adults, into schools opens the door to exploring life course and aging issues with children. Children at all age levels tend to have limited knowledge about older people. They just don't know that many older people. The media, combined with the fact that children have so little contact with real older people, results in children having a lot of stereotypes about the old. Some research has shown that children predominantly view older people as passive and not much fun to be with. At the same time though, they also express deep affection for older people. They evidently feel negatively about the physical and behavioral characteristics of age, but feel a positive affection toward specific older people like a doting grandparent. In other words, children love their grandparents – they just don't ever want to be like them! So intergenerational contact in itself is not enough. It's not enough to build a good relationship with "them." Children also need an educational component so that they come to see themselves as "them."

As far back as 1961, the White House Conference on Aging endorsed the need for aging education in schools. But progress has been slow. Some materials have become available to help teachers integrate aging education into the curriculum. The biggest barrier is that no one wants to talk about it. Many adults – teachers, parents, and grandparents – are not interested in aging and, in fact, must confront their own fears and stereotypes about aging and older adults. A Grandparents Day event can be an important first step in breaking down this barrier, opening dialogue, and building toward aging/life course education and intergenerational programs.


Teaching Children About Aging

In general, there are four areas children should explore as part of understanding their entire life course. We need to teach children about:

  1. The Aging Process: Growing old is a natural part of human development; there are normal changes that come with aging; older people have certain needs and experience losses as well as gains; and it's important to develop ways to deal with realities like illness and death.

  2. Issues Related to Aging: The myths and stereotypes about growing and being old; the economic, social, and psychological challenges of aging in our society; the isolation and segregation of many older adults; the current and historical role of older adults in our society; the roles and treatment of older people in other cultures and the values they reflect.

  3. Older People as Individuals: The families, education, work, and life experiences of grandparents and other older adults; the contributions of older adults now and throughout history.

  4. Connections Between Young and Old: Similarities and differences between young and old; what younger people can expect to do with and can expect from older people; how young and old can work together to address common needs; how being old is perceived by the young versus how it's perceived by the old; how we can look at our lives from a life course perspective and how each individual is unique.


Aging is complex and can be defined in a number of very different ways – chronological, legal, personal, physiological, psychological, and social/cultural. But attitude is key. As we shape children's attitudes, we must also reshape some of our own.

In terms of attitudes toward aging in general, we need to come to see life as an opportunity for continuous growth and development; recognize that all people are unique; understand that there's no one way to "get old;" appreciate the strengths and values of older people; and understand that ageist stereotypes are harmful.

In terms of attitudes toward the aging process, we need to understand aging as a continuous process of growing up and becoming older; recognize that the young today can expect to live longer than ever before in history; understand that aging is a complex interaction of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors; recognize that individuals can make personal choices that will affect the length and quality of their life; and recognize that aging isn't just physical, but it's also psychological and social.

Finally, in terms of societal attitudes, we must understand that advances in medicine, nutrition, and health care make it possible for people to live longer, healthier lives; recognize that longevity is increasing, as is the percentage of the population that is older; recognize that an aging society creates economic and social changes that affect us all; and believe that while an aging society provides challenges, it also offers opportunities.


Looking Past Stereotypes

As we explore aging, we do have to be careful not to split old age into two polarized images – the "ill-derly" versus the "healthy, wealthy, and wise." This feeds both a false pessimism and a superficial optimism. Said one birthday card on the outside: "Do you know how the well-adjusted age?" Inside was the answer: "Neither do I!" There is a vacuum. Negative images are everywhere, oppressive and depressing; positive images are too confining, idealized, and perhaps unattainable for many. Not everyone's situation is the same. Many older people can't retire because they can't subsist on Social Security alone. They may not have e-mail to stay in contact with their grandchildren, and they may be too tired for lifelong learning. To create genuinely satisfying, realistic images of aging, we have to understand its complexities – with variations dependent on class, culture, income, education, gender, and more.

As we create new life maps, there are no prescribed role models to follow, no guideposts, no rigid rules or obvious rewards. Aging is much more than a problem to be solved. It is about our vision of what it means to live a life. We need to feel as though we are moving toward something worthwhile – not necessarily easy, not straightforward, but worthwhile. We need meaning and hope, both individually and as a society.

A final caution: today's children can't necessarily see their own future in the conditions of older people today. No one can say what it will be like to grow old in the middle or late 21st century. What it means to be 50, 60, 70, or 80 years old today is very different from what it meant or was like 100 years ago. We don't know whether the life of older people in the future will be better or worse. But we can be certain that it will be different. The better prepared the young are, the more educated, the more able they will be to help create new life maps and to handle what comes.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org

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