You are old. Therefore, you are useless. You are a burden on the rest of us. You are going downhill. You are out of date. You are expendable. You are sexless. You are "so cute."
These common messages about being old are insidious and pervasive in our culture. They are as discriminatory and damaging as racism and sexism. They devalue and set off to the side a huge segment of us who have reached a certain age. Based on what? The number of years we have lived. Seriously?
Unfortunately, ageism is a serious impediment for healthy and satisfying living among older people, and it is treated lightly. "Oh, they don't mean anything by it."
When someone at church or my chiropractor greets me with, "Hello, young lady," I not only cringe. I want to cry. Is that supposed to be a compliment?
They do mean something by it. They mean if you seem young then you're acceptable, you're better, you're not old. As if that's a dirty word.
How awful is it that I'm old? It's not awful. It's a good thing — a very good thing. It means I've lived a long time, have lots of experience, have a great deal to contribute. Why must people insist I be young, look young, act young? Why do I even hear older people bragging about how "young" they feel?
I remember being young. It had good things and bad things about it. I remember feeling insecure about fitting in, falling in love and failing at it often, wishing I knew more, not getting jobs because I didn't have enough experience.
No thanks, I don't want to "be young," even though some things about being young are wonderful. I also don't need to name as "young" the good things about my life. I can say instead that I feel vibrant, optimistic and enthused about living. I don't have to subscribe to the idolatry of youth.
I want to claim the age that I am, with all its pros and cons. Research studies show there are plenty of pros. Older people are actually happier than people of other ages. We also experience a pleasant burst of creativity in our 70s and 80s. We are less emotionally volatile. We acquire a kind of intelligence you can't have when you're younger; a way of understanding things in broader contexts and integrating the information between our left and right brains. Gene Cohen's book "Mature Mind" and Ashton Applewhite's "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism" elaborate on these and other assets of getting older.
Will a positive view of aging make any difference? Absolutely. Research led by Yale epidemiologist Becca Levy shows that a positive attitude toward aging will, on average, give us an additional 7.5 years of living. By contrast, ageist attitudes that convince us we are losing ground and aren't worth much negatively affect our health and our sense of self-worth. More depression, more falls and other serious consequences take over and literally take our lives.
I coordinate a discussion series for the Vital Aging Network called "Aging with Gusto," where gusto means living life in a way that is highly satisfying and meaningful for you. People use these discussions to explore key contributors to vital aging and how to maximize them in their lives. They also come face-to-face with ageism and consider the choices they can make to counter it.
One participant said she told her group of friends she would no longer accept or send birthday cards that demean aging (even when they're supposed to be "fun," they do mean something — they foster ageism). Another woman said, "It opened my eyes to ageism. I've learned to check myself on what I say. It's changing my thinking."
For myself, I'm very glad I've lived this long, and I intend to make the most of every day I'm given. I ask that you treat me with respect and never call me "young" or "cute."
Pat Samples lives in Brooklyn Center.