The “O” Word

When I turned 60, I discovered with surprise that I had internalized the stigma which, in our mainstream culture, is associated with being old.  I’d taught the concept of internalized ageism for years, but somehow I didn’t expect to experience it.  After my 60th birthday, I gave more thought to what I should be wearing and how I should behave.  I was reluctant to let people know my age.  I started re-evaluating my goals and future plans.  And I felt somewhat diminished to be entering old age.  But I was a young elder, and I relied on that fact to maintain self-esteem.

SAMSPhoto8-13Now I’m 65; I have my Medicare card; and I can no longer claim to be entering old age.  I’m  old, and that engenders many mixed feelings, mostly bad ones.  I worry about every pain and physical set back as a harbinger of coming dysfunction and ultimate demise.  I’m acutely aware that I don’t know if I’ll be able to take long bicycle rides, do the heavy yard work, or take long road trips for very much longer.  To my inner self, my value clearly lies in what I can DO, not in who I am, what I know, or what I have contributed in my lifetime.

Last week I attended two educational events:  a hospice workshop and a presentation on lifelong learning.  One would expect these events to be elder-friendly, and in general they were.  But in both events, people joked that they themselves weren’t getting old.  Pretty much everyone laughed, except me.  I don’t blame people for laughing.  Our societal ageism is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even recognize it.  It now strikes me that our attempts to deny our aging are very much akin to the attempts, in decades past, of light skinned black people to pass as white.  It’s regarded as shameful in some way to be old.

I think we need to claim the “O” word, to assert that we’re old with equanimity.  We need models of old pride, just as we needed models of black pride in the 60’s and 70’s.  And I don’t just mean the outliers, the amazing athletes, performers, or public servants, although I relish their stories.  We need models of everyday folks who are old and interesting because of their contributions, their insights, their perseverance, their faith, their commitment, their ability to endure, their roles in their families, their expressions of caring….  We can find such examples in every neighborhood.  They don’t tell us because they don’t think they’re anything special.  And we don’t bother to ask.  Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University


5 thoughts on “The “O” Word

  1. Jennifer Taylor

    Wow Sue!
    I love this piece. It is so thought provoking, and it takes me back to so many conversations I had with my mother in law. She often joked about how she was only joining groups at church with people 20 years her junior because she did not want to be old. After reading this, I hope to hold on to the idea of embracing my age and celebrating my contributions while I grow older! As I write this response, I keep thinking about how I want my teenagers to feel when they reach this part of their journey! I certainly hope they embrace every part of their life and never feel the need to deny their aging! I vow to stand up and be a good role model for them by showing my old pride.
    Thank you for sharing!
    Jennifer Taylor
    Parents Changing Spaces

    1. suesweeney Post author

      Great example. I remember my grandmother didn’t want to move into a senior citizen apartment, even though it would save her money on rent, because she didn’t want to live with those “old people”. We need to get past those stereotypes!

      1. Patty Terrell

        Hello Sue,
        I am starting to feel ‘old’ so reading your blog has lifted up my spirits. I will be 60 this year and can’t hardly believe time has passed so quickly. I look back and think about what I have accomplished and what I have contributed that has made a positive impact. Some days I feel good about my life, and others, I don’t think I have contributed enough, or anything significant. I do think that everyone is special in their own way, and sometimes it just takes a small act of kindness, whether given or received to realize that. I think that talking about age and embracing it makes it easier somehow. I don’t think that you need to worry about what you will be able to do in the future (bike riding, etc), as I think after reading your Christmas letter that you have a lot of energy and that I better get going to be able to keep up with you!
        Your cousin,

      2. suesweeney Post author

        Thanks for your comment. I found turning 60 to be tough also. It’s the internalized ageism that we don’t acknowledge until we begin to think of ourselves as old. It does help to stay active, both physically and psychologically. I find myself thinking, “Well, if I can bike at 10 miles an hour and go 10 or more miles, I can’t be doing too badly”. Not that I find it easy to do!! Keep thinking postively; you’ve got nothing to lose and much to gain!

  2. Tom Clark

    Climbing high steel as a rigger for the IATSE was among the most satisfying tasks I have ever accomplished. The most painful decision of my advancing years was to have to give it up at age 67. Still fully capable, at the top of my game, I heard a warning in my heart, in my eyes, in my ears, in my mind, and in my lower back, that it was time climb down. Since my next warning might involve killing someone, I took that step and declared my career in the high steel at an end. As in Harry Chapin’s song, “W-O-L-D,” I volunteered to walk away from a piece of life. The coming years require of me all the strength and courage life has given. What wonders lie ahead?


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