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.
Now 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