Sunday, May 15, 2022

A Few Thoughts About Ageism

As many of you know, I turned 75 on Valentine's Day. When I was a kid, folks who were 75 were often called "elderly." There were many stereotypes about the elderly back then-- they were usually thought of as frail, forgetful, incapable of doing what they used to do. Sometimes, they were called senile. The idea that someone in their 70s would still be working full-time was considered unlikely-- after all, folks of that age were unable to remember things, and unable to keep up the pace of younger people.  

Fast forward to today. As you also know, I got my PhD at age 64, and I've been a professor at Lesley University since 2008 (I taught part-time at Emerson College before that). I can't imagine retiring, and I'll let you decide if I'm "frail" or "forgetful" or (gasp) "senile." In many ways, we Baby Boomers have redefined what it means to be in our 70s. A sizable number of us are still working-- some part-time, but some full-time. Some of us are retired but still do volunteer work. Some of us are engaged in a variety of hobbies. And yes, some of us are indeed suffering from various illnesses and unable to do what we used to do.

My point is that everything changes, including our definitions of the "right" age to do X or Y or Z. I know folks who didn't start college till they were in their 40s. I know folks who didn't get married till they were in their 50s. I know folks who are in their 80s and sharp as the proverbial tack, and I know folks who are in their 30s who have no common sense whatsoever. The word "elderly" is no longer our preferred term-- it has a judgmental connotation. We're senior citizens these days-- although I admit I don't like that term any better. 

Meanwhile, let's look at congress, where Mitch McConnell is 80. Nancy Pelosi is 82. Bernie Sanders is also 80. President Joe Biden is 79. And former president Donald Trump is the youngster in the group-- he's about to turn 76. What brought all this to mind is that I saw someone posting on social media the other day that Mr. Biden is "senile." It really irritated me. Just because you don't agree with someone, don't say they are cognitively impaired. I don't for one minute think Mitch McConnell is senile-- and I rarely agree with him on anything. Yes, of course, aging can affect a person's brain, but its impact is different for every person. 

So, let's not return to ageist stereotypes from the past. Mr. Biden is a stutterer, and he has never been a good public speaker, but that is not a sign of "dementia." Alzheimer's is a terrible disease that robs people of their memories-- but not every older person will get it. So, if we can avoid tossing words around that demean and stereotype older people, I think that will be a good thing. As I said, we all age differently. I'm actually impressed when I see folks in their 80s doing what they love. My hope is that I'll be like former CBS News anchor Dan Rather-- he's 90, and still active (and still very much aware of current events). But above all, I hope we can learn to respect those who are older, and honor those who still want to make a contribution to society--whatever their age.  


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