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When you’re offered a senior discount and you aren’t yet a senior

Q. I hope I am not too young to ask a question for your column. I am 53 years old, a mom with two great kids, active and work full-time. I rarely think about my age until I recently went to get my car washed. When I got ready to pay, I realized I was being charged a lower price than usual. I asked if there was a special today. The cashier, a young woman of about 20 years replied, “No, that’s the senior discount.” I’m not embarrassed about my age but I felt categorized and a bit insulted. Is this a common reaction? S.L.

Dear S.L.

No one is ever too young or too old to ask a question of the Successful Aging column. Aging is a lifelong journey starting when we are quite young and if we are lucky, the journey is a long one.

Let’s begin with the cashier who may not have been thinking and just automatically gave you a senior discount. She also may have been naïve or impervious to the impact of assuming a woman is older than her chronological age, particularly in our culture.

Culture counts. In other cultures, assuming you are older than your chronological age may be a compliment suggesting that you are valued and respected.

Here are some examples: In Greek and Greek-American culture respect for the elder is central to the family; old age is honored and celebrated. In many tribal communities, elders are respected for their life experiences and wisdom. In Korea, the Confucian principle of filial piety, the duty of respect, obedience and caring for one’s parents and elderly family members, has influenced attitudes. Chinese families also tend to view filial piety and respect for elders as their highest virtue. In India, many older people who live in joint family units are considered head of the family. Elders in ancient Rome set a positive model. They were considered a precious resource, respected for their wisdom and serving as a role model for the young. This was the case, even though life expectancy was 25 years. Those that lived into their 70s had a special role.

We live in a society where youth is valued over age. Many women are afraid to look older, which means some wrinkles, a bit of sagging skin and graying hair. This fear has some basis as age biases continue to exist. One example is the workplace. Several studies document hiring managers’ preference for younger workers. A classic study involves an older and younger candidate applying for a job with identical resumes. The younger candidate most often gets invited back for the second interview. Interesting, as there are several studies that suggest hiring managers value older workers for their loyalty, on-time attendance, work ethic and more. However, that does not mean they hire them.

When someone assumes that we are older than our age, our mind can easily move to thinking that the individual is making assumptions about us that are untrue and might be negative or “less than.” We may fear we are being judged according to age stereotypes such as being rigid, unable or resistant to learning something new and are less valued compared to younger folks. That’s ageism.

Making assumptions about one’s age can send either a negative or positive message. Here are two personal experiences. Years ago, I was at an art museum in Chicago that offered a senior discount to those 55 years and older. Since I was younger than age 55 at the time, I was taken aback when the cashier automatically charged me the senior discounted fee and never asked my age or to see any identification. Her response may just have been routine. However, it did have me think about my appearance. On the flip side, when I have been asked to take off my shoes going through the LAX security line, I would tell the TSA agents that I qualify for the 75-plus benefit of leaving my shoes on my feet. Agents have expressed surprise.

S.L., your response is reasonable and likely common. It reminds us that judgments often are made on perceived physical characteristics. At the same time, decisions about car wash fees, an entrance to an art museum or going through security at LAX are relatively minor yet often can be indicators of how age-related decisions can quickly be made. When age is used to deprive citizens of equal opportunity to participate in our society — that matters.

Thank you for your good question. Stay safe and well and remember to be kind to yourself and others.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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