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Successful Aging: There is no excuse to accept ageism or patronizing attitudes

Q. When I look up the word “old” in the thesaurus, I find the following: elderly, aged, gray-haired, grizzled, past one’s prime, decrepit, doddering, senile and over the hill. I feel I am treated like all of the above. Recently, I asked my doctor how my migraine medication worked? Expecting a scientific answer, he told me that “the medication gives little messages to my brain to tell it to stop hurting.” I also asked why my eyes were so teary. His reply, “Because they are old.” In social events, men don’t ask me about my previous career, although I ask about theirs.

I am feeling patronized. What to do? P.S. I am 77, female with white hair and a previous pre-school director, attorney and avid tennis player. B.J.

Dear B.J.

Being patronized is definitely not a good feeling. The reactions you describe fall into the category of ageism that was defined by the late noted geriatrician Dr. Robert N. Butler as prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. Ageist assumptions occur anywhere: cocktail parties, doctor’s offices, the cosmetics counter at a department store or an automobile dealership.

Unfortunately, few of us are free of some age biases. Butler wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Why Survive?: Being Old in America” that there is “a deep and profound prejudice against the elderly (which) is found to some degree in all of us.”

That is no excuse to accept ageism. It just gives each of us reason to become aware of our own biases and do something about them.

Here are some action steps we can take suggested by Anne E. Gerike in her book “Old is Not a Four-Letter Word.” These tips can increase awareness, serve as advice to professionals with whom we interact and be helpful in correcting our own stereotypes about aging.

Language matters: If you use the word “young” when you mean someone who is healthy, happy, creative, energetic or attractive and vital, then use those words rather than “young.” Furthermore, if you are describing someone who is miserable, rigid, boring or sickly, use these words, not “old.” Negative terms to describe people because of their racial or ethnic group, disabilities or sexual identity are not acceptable. Negative terms to describe people just because they are older should be equally unacceptable.

You don’t look your age: This is a difficult one, particularly for women. From when we are young, we are socialized to equate beauty with youth. In accepting the compliment that you don’t look your age, you can always just say thank you while thinking to yourself, “What did you expect me to look like?” You also can say, “If you mean you find me attractive, thank you.”

Hostile birthday cards: Try to determine the fine line between humor and insults. If you are buying an age-bashing card for a friend that ridicules age, be aware of the message. Blindness, difficulty walking, memory loss and lower sexual performance aren’t considered funny until they are associated with age.

Ageism in advertising: Learn to identify age myths and stereotypes in advertising. Write to the company and threaten to stop buying the product, even if you don’t use it. Older adults have about seven trillion dollars of spending power, yet are often ignored or portrayed unrealistically as being forever young. Time to get over the idea that we need to be wrinkle-free, thin and young to be noticed.

A party for your birthday: Feel good about your age and throw yourself a big party. Let people know you are looking forward to your next chapters in life. Be a role model for your guests, children and grandchildren.

And now to those interactions with your doctor. Consider saying, “Thank you for the explanation about the drug and its impact on migraine headaches. I understand we know a great deal about aging and the changes that can occur with age. Could you describe more specifically exactly how the drug works and also why older eyes seem to tear? As a former attorney, I love details.”

In a social situation, if you are not asked about your career experience or anything about your life, volunteer some information. Consider yourself a valued personal library of experience. Don’t wait to be asked; it may never happen.

Thank you, B.J., for sharing your experiences. I am sure many of us can relate. We can change the negative stereotypes of aging by starting with ourselves and then speaking out to correct misperceptions. The change is slow. If we all became advocates and educators, ageism would fade.

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