You know you’re getting old when an all-nighter means not getting up to pee.
You know you’re getting old when the bank sends you its free calendar… one month at a time.
You know you’re getting old when you try to straighten the wrinkles in your socks … and you’re not wearing any.
We’ve all heard the jokes or sent an over-the-hill greeting card making fun of the number of candles on someone’s birthday cake.
After all, getting old is funny stuff, so what’s the harm?
Maybe more than we think.
“Often people are not aware of the subtle messages until you point them out,” said Sandy Waldo, a retired registered nurse who is an AARP volunteer.
Those messages, often anything but subtle, come in the form of stereotypes that portray aging as not only undesirable, but also something to dread, fear and mock.
“I had to heighten my own awareness around the messages that we get; the culture around aging,” Waldo said. “There would be a time when I would be offended with a comment, but often it was just, ‘Oh well, I am that age,’ so that’s expected.”
That all changed, however, once Waldo began giving presentations as part of a new AARP Connecticut initiative called Disrupt Aging, a program created to change the perceptions and negative attitudes about getting older.
“I really do believe that it impacts how we think about aging,” she said. “And how we age.”
Positive Attitudes & Longevity
The research backs her up, indicating that people who have negative perceptions of aging tend to live shorter lives than their more optimistic counterparts.
“People who have positive perceptions about aging when they’re a young person, live seven and a half years longer than people who have negative perceptions about aging when they’re a young person,” said Donna Fedus, gerontologist and co-founder of Borrow My Glasses, an education company dedicated to bringing new perspectives to aging and caregiving.
“People who have positive perceptions about aging are healthier than people who have negative perceptions about aging,” she said.
“So those little things really do make a difference to our own survival, as well as the quality of life, quality of family life and community life around us.”
Older adults are often depicted in the media as out-of-touch, feeble, senile, confused, grumpy, complaining, among any number of other unflattering portrayals. Those negative portrayals shape perceptions.
And while the blatant stereotypes seem fairly obvious, there are also subliminal messages, both in the media and through daily interactions, that are condescending and demeaning, even when on the surface they appear positive.
“An example of what you might not think of as stereotypical is to say ‘Old people are cute,’ or sometimes people will say ‘Oh, honey,’ or ‘Grandpa’ when it’s not your own grandfather, or ‘Sweetie,’” said Fedus.
“Who’s cute in our society?” she asked. “Puppies and little kids are cute.”
“To equate that with a person who’s lived decades of experience and done all kinds of hard and challenging things, it’s like they’re not a full-spectrum human being.”
What We Tell Ourselves
Beyond the external messages, what we tell ourselves about aging is equally as important.
According to Catherine Richards Solomon, a sociologist and director of the gerontology program at Quinnipiac University, internalized ageism can be just as damaging; we should resist the urge to view ordinary things associated with aging as negative.
“So, what’s so wrong with being ‘out of touch?’” she said. “Why is it such a big deal if you don’t understand a new app on the phone? Who cares?”
Solomon also said that age-related changes like wrinkles, age spots and gray hair are only physical attributes that don’t diminish who we are as people or hinder our ability to go about our lives.
“It’s a normal, biological process; it’s not going to affect your day-to-day functioning.”
For other common aging complaints, like loss of reading vision or hearing, people can cope by employing adaptive strategies, but for some older adults, it can feel like a concession.
“A lot of people wear glasses because it helps you see better, but what’s the problem with getting a hearing aid?” she said. “It’s just helping you hear better.
“How we think about those things is influenced by ageism, so instead of just saying, ‘I can’t get a hearing aid because that means I’m older,’ it’s ‘I need a hearing aid just like I needed glasses when I was 12.’
“To me those aren’t different things,” Solomon added, “but because of the messages that we get from society about aging, we perceive those natural things as negative.”
Setting A Precedent
And when we internalize those messages, they often become self-fulling prophecies, not only for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren.
“Without even being told, children assume with aging that you stop being able to do a lot of different things, you’re not interested in doing things or you don’t care,” Waldo said.
“I think by showing the world, children especially, how engaged we can be in life, how much we can enjoy it after 65, it’s a lesson to our children and I hope it’s something that they look at, believe in and it changes their perception about these old stereotypes.”
We’re setting a precedent, according to Fedus, who said that because we are living longer than previous generations, today’s older adults are pioneers, wading into uncharted territory.
“The idea of longevity is here to stay,” she said. “People are living longer than ever. [But] in many ways people’s mindsets about aging have not really caught up with the reality of aging, and it’s just changing so quickly, in one or two generations, and what the experience of aging is, is so different.
“People are not ready on an individual level to think about aging, communities are not ready, businesses are not ready, students are not ready.”
Reframing Negative Clichés
In collaboration, Borrow My Glasses and AARP hope to change all that through the Disrupt Aging program, which aims to raise awareness through presentations held in communities, workplaces and classrooms.
“Once people become aware of their own biases, or see them out in the world, then they have a real choice on whether or not to perpetuate that, or to change it, or challenge it,” said Fedus.
“We’re really trying to put the information out there in an engaging way, so people have the opportunity to consider it, then hopefully act on it and transform their attitudes about aging.”
Taking a negative cliché, like “I’m having senior moment” and reframing it to refer to an uplifting interaction, like enjoying time with a grandchild, rather than being about forgetfulness, is just one way the program encourages people to make positive age-associations instead of negative ones.
And while there’s still a long way to go, it’s a start.
“Reframing can empower people so that they can be agents of change in their own lives, “said Solomon, “however small or big they want those changes to be.”
“Making people feel empowered, I feel, is so important to create social change, because when individuals don’t feel empowered to be agents of change, then nothing happens and no good can follow.”
Since aging is the one aspect of the human experience that all of us, if we’re fortunate enough, have in common, it might be time to reflect on what we’re telling ourselves about the process, along with how we communicate about what it means to age.
So even though it seems like an insignificant thing, it’s not a bad idea to pause before buying that birthday card with a tombstone on it.
“If you find a card that’s funny, and it does have that ageist sort of twist on it, if you’re buying it for a specific person that it’s so right for, that they would enjoy the laugh, that’s fine,” said Waldo.
“But I do have to say that when I go to the store to buy birthday cards for friends that are my age, I no longer buy those. I’d rather give them something that is more significant, or written nicely about our friendship, because I feel so differently about it today.”