by Alice Fisher, M.A., M.S.W. February 1, 2016
”Do you really want to know what’s bothering me?” “When,” asks my friend Karen, “did I become old?”
I am so taken aback that this question would come from my 70 year old creative, caring, smart, attractive, and always busy friend who always looks so stylish.
We are both 70 years old. At first I’m not sure if this is a real question or just a rhetorical point that Karen is about to make. I wonder if she really wants an answer. I reply, “Well, for one thing, we are old.” “I know that,” Karen responded. “Yet, up until recently I didn’t feel old, and now I do.” “When did this happen?” In the silence following Karen’s remark, I can tell that she is serious and is really looking for an answer.
“What are we talking about here, Karen?” I ask. “I’m not sure,” she replies. “It seems that wherever I go, I’m the old lady in the room. If I go to the gym, everyone looks 30 to me. When I show up for an appointment, I can just tell that they expected a younger person. I fear every single day that I will lose my job. And, when I’m doing something that requires the least amount of physical agility, there is always someone who wants to help me even though I’m capable of doing it myself. The only good I can see in ageing is that I no longer have a problem getting a seat on the subway. There is always some younger person who offers me her seat. Just the other day I asked my son to show me how to do something on my computer. His response to me was, “Here, mom, let me do it for you. It’s really difficult to learn these things at your age.” “He made me so angry!”
It’s Karen’s environment that is making her feel old. Karen, just like the rest of us, is internalizing the messages that are being projected onto her by the society we live in. Let’s face it. It’s the actions of others and the messages we see in the media that often make us feel old. And, in today’s society this is not difficult to imagine. Just the word “old” is loaded with covert meanings. Let’s be real here. In our post modern culture, young equals good, while old equals bad. And, yet, everyone wants to live to be very old. “It’s a great blessing to be granted the status of being old”, I say. “Sure,” says Karen, “as long as your hair isn’t grey. What do you think? Should I dye it?”
Age discrimination can be dangerous. Every day our youth-centric culture bombards us with messages that tell us we can look ‘better’, which is covert language for ‘younger’. Do we really believe these ad headlines: “How Science Can Make 60 Feel Like 40” or “Wrinkles Amazingly Disappear Overnight”? Somebody does because these ads run over and over again, and the manufacturers and distributors are laughing all the way to the bank. What is at stake here are feelings of irrelevancy and marginalization. No wonder so many people, both women and men, are buying into cosmetic surgery. This is not vanity. It is an attempt to stay relevant.
We are segregated. We are marginalized. We are oppressed. And all this can easily become internalized as feelings of worthlessness. Becca Levy, Ph.D., a psychologist and doctor at Yale University, has done quite a bit of research in this area. Her results demonstrate that older people who are subject to negative stereotypes of ‘old’ are not only mentally but also physically less resilient than those who see ‘old’ as a positive stage of life. Older people who internalize the negative stereotypes are more likely to shorten their life span.
This is an ongoing conversation between me and Karen. I’m interested in asking my friend what ‘old’ feels like to her. As Ashton Applewhite writes in her new book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, “the question is not how old we feel but how we feel about ‘old’ –or about not just being young anymore.”
Stay tuned for Part II.