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Successful Aging: So what exactly should an 81-year-old person sound like?

I had a phone conversation with a hospital receptionist to schedule an appointment for some lab work. I told her I did not want to drive to the Beverly Hills location and preferred a laboratory closer to my home. The reason was I was 81 years old, etc. The receptionist gasped and commented, “You don’t sound 81. I proceeded to tell her that I just returned from an 8:00 a.m. hike of over three miles along a trail. Another large gasp! I am not sure how an 81-year old woman is supposed to sound or act. Your thoughts? S.H.

Dear S.H.

There seems to occur some magical thinking when women, and perhaps men, hit the 80 mark. That age seems to motivate others to make comments about looks, activities and style. One that I recently heard was, “It’s great you are wearing jeans at your age.”

Children often are impervious to age. I recall when one of my grandsons who was six years old at the time met a gentleman in Starbucks who asked, “Sonny, how old are you?” My grandson replied, “I’m six; how old are you?” With a surprised look on his face, the man replied, “76.” It was an unexpected moment.

Back to your question: the receptionist may have assumed that you were not driving because of an age-related limitation and consequently were not able to do anything else. Another scenario is that the receptionist in her medical role may see many older patients with visible physical problems and weak voices and assumed you were just one of them. 

Then there is the scenario of reality. With age, some peoples’ voices gradually change; it is considered a normal part of aging. Note, this does not universally apply to all older people since we know that individuals age at different rates. 

The Cleveland Clinic indicates two age-related physical changes that can weaken one’s voice. The most common is the aging of the larynx or voice box and the respiratory system that powers it. Vocal cords may become less flexible and dry. Muscles of the larynx can become thinner and weaker; one’s torso may become smaller and stiffer all leading to a voice change.

Overall health is a second reason. A change can be due to a developing medical problem such as chronic fatigue or neurological problems that can cause shaking or a voice tremor. Cancer, a polyp or paralysis also can affect one’s vocal cords according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The problem arises when one automatically assumes an 81-year old woman should sound a certain way and not be robust or vital. That’s called ageism. So often such remarks are not meant to insult. Rather they are due to habits particularly since ageist attitudes and comments remain socially acceptable. Fortunately, there is a growing anti-ageism movement and campaign to set the record straight. Ashton Applewhite, anti-ageism activist and author of “This Chair Rocks,” established Old School, a clearinghouse of free and carefully vetted resources to educate people about ageism. Janine Vanderburg, another anti-aging activist, directs Changing the Narrative in Colorado to change the way people think, talk and act about ageism.

Ageism is not new, as supported by the findings of the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. In a sample of over 2000 adults 50 to 80 years, 80 percent experience ageism almost on a daily basis in materials they watch or read or in experience with others. AARP reports that two out of three employees indicate they have experienced or observed ageism in their workplace. These ageist moments all have occurred prior to the pandemic.

It can be difficult to know how to respond when someone makes an ageist remark. The Old Women’s Project, consisting of three women in San Diego, work to combat ageist attitudes that ignore, trivialize or demean older women. They offer some suggestions.

The illness inference: If someone cordially says, “I am so glad you are still up and around,” Consider saying with kindness, “Thank you for your concern, and do let me know if you need anything.” 

Compliments on looking young: “You look so good for your age” could be met with the response, “Thank you. I’m actually proud of my age” or the Gloria Steinem’s response, “This is what 70, 80 or 90 looks like.” 

The universal response: Just ask the person, “What do you mean?”

S.H. Thank you for your good question. It is always amazing how subtle yet direct attitudes towards age become revealing. Hope you got that convenient lab appointment and happy hiking. Take care and be safe. 


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