Alice speaks

Why Ageism Deserves Respect

by Alice Fisher, M.S.W.
May 1, 2017

Ageism: It’s as systemic as racism. It’s as insulting as ableism. It’s as hurtful as homophobia. It’s everywhere like sexism. It marginalizes. It stereotypes. It stigmatizes. It makes older people invisible. It discounts a life of experience and wisdom. It prevents people from living a whole full life. It kills. Yet, because of a lack of awareness, ageism does not get the respect it deserves, unlike racism and antisemitism, homophobia, et. al

It has been documented by many researchers, including Becca Levy of Yale, that ageism when internalized cuts short a person’s lifespan. And, yet ageism is sometimes not even recognized by its victims. When an older adult says, “I, personally, have never encountered ageism,” my usual reply is, “You must be satisfied with the amount of your social security payment.” There is always that moment of “aha” when I say this. Yes, the amount of income we receive from social security has ageism written all over it.

When someone calls you an ageist, are you as upset as when the same person calls you a racist or a sexist? If not, ask yourself why.

  • Ageism is as systemic as racism. Both ageism and racism are built into the fabric of our society, and is expressed by individuals, institutions, and our government. Ageism and Racism have a significant impact both on the individuals who experience it and the wider community. Research shows that there are significant links between experiences of ageism and/or racism and discrimination and poor physical and mental health, reduced productivity and reduced life expectancy.

Further, it is well-recognized that ageism and/or racism presents barriers to social inclusion and economic participation.

  • Ageism is as insulting as ableism. While the country prides itself on its increasing acceptance of traditionally marginalized populations, old people and disabled people continue to be stripped of their voices, and it’s hurting everyone.

“Ableism” refers to attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. Not unlike ageism, ableism targets people with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, or of less inherent value than others. Similar to ageism, ableism may be conscious or unconscious, and may be embedded in institutions, systems or the broader culture of a society. It can limit the opportunities of persons with disabilities and reduce their inclusion in the life of their communities.

  • Ageism is as hurtful as homophobia. Homophobic bullying is behavior or language which makes a person feel unwelcome or marginalized because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. Although not referred to as “bullying”, elder abuse also makes a person feel unwelcome and marginalized as the result of ageism. In so many ways, an abused elder, is also a victim of bullying…elder bullying.

Bobbie Sackman testimony at NYC CouncilSome of the more common forms of elder abuse and homophobic bullying include: verbal bullying, indirect bullying by way of social exclusion, and physical bullying. The effects shared by bullied homosexuals and abused old people include; denial of sexual orientation and/or denial of one’s age, low self-esteem, shame, depression, defensiveness, anger and / or bitterness. All of this leads to risk-taking behaviors, including substance abuse, self-harm and/or suicidal thoughts.

    • Ageism is everywhere like sexism. You don’t have to look further than the oval office these days to know that sexism is alive and flourishing these days. And, add to that the fiasco at Fox news which seems to be a bastion of sexual harassment. This is just blatant in-your-face sexism. Yet, sexism, just like ageism, is often hidden in plain sight. Although ageism is practiced against men as well as women, for women it looks very different, and it’s found everywhere.
    • Ageism is a women’s Issue. Women are still the majority of caregivers to the elderly, and perhaps this why there is still a deficit in caregiver resources. Think about it. How would the picture change if men were the primary caregivers, both professional and personal? According to Caring Across Generations, more of us are caregivers than ever before. Nationwide, there are more than 41 million family caregivers who are doing the important work of caring for a loved one, often while juggling a full-time job.
    • Ageism is a healthcare issue. In reality, 70 percent of Americans older than age 65 will need some form of long-term care (Kane, 2013). This denial of the need for care is comprehensive public−private partnership in long-term care is to perpetuate ageism—denial of growing old is ageist. . Much of the public policy in our country smacks of ageism. When adequate resources are not allotted to senior services, when social security doesn’t reflect the cost of living, when people are on waiting lists for necessary services like meals-on-wheels or casework, ageism can be found as the root cause for so many of these issues.
    • Ageism is an economic and political issue. Like racism and sexism, ageism serves a social and economic purpose: to legitimize and sustain inequalities between groups. It’s not about how we look. It’s about how people in power assign meaning to how we look.
  • Last, but not least, ageism is an inter-generational issue. Young adults who hold ageist views are setting up discrimination against their future selves. We may not all be victims of racism, or sexism, or antisemitism, yet if we are fortunate to live a long life, we will all have the opportunity to be victims of ageism. Because of longevity, it is more a certainty that many of us will need help to sustain ourselves through our later years. Younger generations must be prepared to offer a helping hand to the oldest and most vulnerable among us. To achieve this, we need to build a co-dependent society where we all recognize ourselves in the faces of our fellow human beings.

Let’s give ageism the same respect we give to racism, sexism, homophobia and the rest. Older adults deserve our respect as do the issues that marginalize them.

Looking for Abuela in America

by Alice Fisher, M.A., M.S.W.
January 6, 2017

My husband and I just spent a marvelous week with our friend of over 30 years, Maria Acosta Castro, and the entire Acosta family in Medellin, Colombia. It was our first time there, and we were thrilled to meet the entire Acosta family, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, grandchildren and great grandchildren, lots of cousins, and, most important, Abuela, Maria’s mom and matriarch of this loving and dedicated family. They are certainly dedicated to each other. Most impressive, however, is their dedication to Abuela (grandmother in Spanish).

Over Christmas weekend, we ate and danced and ate and drank and ate some more. Such a happy family who sincerely enjoy each other’s company and being together. They are not a wealthy family, and yet they are extremely rich in the most important things in life…unqualified love and support. There is no word for ageism in their vocabulary.

During a conversation with Maria’s 30-year-old nephew, Fredy Duque, I mentioned how heartwarming it was to witness everyone’s devotion to his grandmother. “My grandmother is revered,” he told me. “No matter what I am doing in my life, I visit my grandmother every week, sometimes twice, as do most of our family. Her advice is invaluable.”
Maria’s brother explained to me how most of his brothers and sisters live relatively close to Abuela. “It’s how it is here,” he added. “We are all devoted to her.”

Fredy inquired about my own 3 sons and grandchildren. When I told him we have have 4 granddaughters, he asked how often they come to see us. I told him that we see two of them, 11 and 14, once a year, occasionally twice. They live in Chicago, and we go to them…they never come to us. This was completely beyond his comprehension. The others, one in college in Wisconsin and one in high school in DC where they live, we see more often…maybe 4-5 times a year. And, even that was unacceptable to him. “No, no,” he said, shaking his head, “impossible!”

I described our ageist American culture to him, explaining how Ageism is as endemic to our society as is racism, sexism, and all the rest. “Americans worship youth,” I said. “They do not value elders as contributors to our society”, I added; “some even see us as a burden. Many older and elder adults are resigned to the margins of society”. He tried to control the look of anguish on his face. He couldn’t understand. Who can? The Radical Age Movement was just not describable. I was in another world.

I then expressed my concern over our own needs in our old age and if there would be anyone to help us at the end of our lives when we can no longer care for each other or ourselves. “Incredible!” was his response. “That you need to worry about this in your later years is so bad.” I attempted to put this in perspective, explaining how we would survive while many old people who are homeless with no social support systems cannot survive old age with any quality of life, self-worth, or dignity.

Now, as I am flying home to New York City, I can’t help but feel a bit jealous of the respect and reverence that this extraordinary older woman receives, and how those high opinions contribute to her marvelous sense of well-being. I can’t help wondering where we, as a society and as individuals, went wrong. I ask myself what happened to Abuela in our American culture? Where is she?

For sure, you can find her here among the immigrant community that has not yet internalized the negative images of the old that we are bombarded with every day. Will they, I wonder, also succumb to the power of our society’s disregard for the oldest among us?

Two incidents come to mind:

  1. My parents spent the last couple of years of their lives at a wonderful facility, The Hebrew Home at Riverdale in New York. When we were arranging their accommodations, one of the staff said to us, “You would not believe how many people drop off their parents or other older members of their family, never to be seen again.”

2. I was asked to make a presentation on empowerment to a new women’s group that had been formed at an assistant living facility. I met with a lovely and intelligent group of older women. One issue most of them seemed to have in common was their relationships with their grandchildren. One woman told the group that she hardly knows her grandchildren and how the grandchildren really don’t know her. This sentiment was echoed by the majority of women in the room.

How sad is that!

We have to confront ageism wherever we see it. We will not only be helping ourselves; we will be helping make a better society.

Alice Fisher is Founder and President of the Radical Age Movement

How to Fight the War vs. Old People

by Alice Fisher
January 3, 2017

“Movements are engaged in ‘meaning-work’…the struggle over the production of ideas of meaning…The failure of mass mobilization when structural conditions seem otherwise ripe may be accounted for by the absence of a resonant master frame.”

Reframing Aging: Seeing What You’re Up Against and Finding a Way Forward, Frameworks Institute, April 1, 2015

elderly-peopleOld people have been getting a bad rap for a very long time. And, in case you haven’t noticed, since we have a new president-elect, there is now an out-and-out war against older adults.

I’m not proposing that age prejudice is more devastating than any other prejudice. What I am doing is calling attention to ageism, which is pernicious in our society and yet rarely included when other “isms” are mentioned. Age prejudice is the most widespread prejudice endemic to our culture as it affects every other group-whether a person of color, a woman, or LGBTQ. Why aren’t more people interested in this devastating cultural development? Ageism is a prejudice that is not bound by gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or economic status. If we are lucky to get old, it is a prejudice that everyone will have to confront. There is a saying in the field of aging: “If you are an ageist, you are setting up a prejudice against your own future self.”

As the Radical Age Movement and other organizations are confronting aspects of ageism which include invisibility, marginalization, isolation, and loneliness, we recognize that age prejudice is a poison dart shot into the self-esteem of so many older adults. It is internalized, turned into depression, and leads to an earlier decline. We must work to stop such damage—from others and done to ourselves, for we are now again threatened with Medicare and Social Security insecurity. Those who seek to destroy our benefits are counting on us to withdraw, stay depressed, remain quiet. This cannot happen!

growth-of-older-populationOne of the tools we already have at our disposal is language and how we use it. When, ask yourself, did reverence, respect, and honor disappear from the lexicon of aging? Why do elders around the world express the irrelevance to society they now feel after years of engagement with and contributions to the communities that they live in? When did older adults become geezers, biddies, codgers, and crones, old goats and old bags? Ask yourself why we see these words on birthday cards that are assumed to be funny yet target older adults with insulting humor. Why is the growth of an older population called a “tsunami” instead of a “wave of wisdom and experience”?

Think about how recent movements have resulted in language change; the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the LGBTQ Movement, among others. Regarding Ageism, The Frameworks Institute describes ageism as being an important concern among professionals that is otherwise absent from thinking among the general public:

“While aging experts are attuned to the myriad ways that older Americans face discrimination in our society, the public is largely not attuned to this factor or to the need to address it via legal and other systemic means.”

Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps between Expert and Public Understandings of Aging in America Frameworks Institute, 2015

We need to turn to language to create a society that is attuned to the ways that older Americans face discrimination. If we look at language as a symbolic system through which people communicate and through which culture is transmitted, it is not difficult to see how the words mentioned above like geezers, biddies, codgers, and crones, old goats and old bags should not be acceptable to anyone who believes that everyone should be valued throughout the lifespan regardless of age. How can we take the presently pejorative meaning of the word “old” and make it a future positive?

That’s an easy one. What about, however, the word “senior”? As “senior” today is imbued with all of these negative images conferred on older people through our culture, many older adults, particularly leading edge boomers, refuse to be categorized in this way.

In a report on language change by the National Science Foundation, we are told that:

“Languages change for a variety of reasons. Large-scale shifts often occur in response to social, economic and political pressures. History records many examples of language change fueled by invasions, colonization and migration. Even without these kinds of influences, a language can change dramatically if enough users alter the way they speak it.”

At the Radical Age Movement, we believe that longevity and the opening up of a new stage of life along the life-span has fueled the call for language that enhances the concept of ageing to replace the demeaning language that has grown up in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In her book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, Ashton Applewhite suggests that we substitute “olders” and “elders” to replace the homogenized term “seniors” which lumps all people over 65 into one category. Nobody knows what to call those of us born during and after WWII; we are referred to as “young seniors” or “leading edge boomers” for lack of any other appropriate term that is acceptable to those being described.

So, what can we do to change the language of the current ageing narrative? Again, from the National Science Foundation, “before a language can change, speakers must adopt new words…, spread them through the community, and transmit them to the next generation. In order to do this, we all need to develop critical language awareness.

Here are some questions we could ask ourselves, from The Power of Talk: How Words Change Our Lives, by Briscoe, Arriaza, and Henze:

  • What social relations or social process does this language reflect, reinforce, or reproduce?
  • If I want to change these relations or process, what else besides language needs to change?
  • How can I link language change with broader social change? Or the reverse—How can I link broader social change with ground level changes that might be reflected in language?

We cannot ask others to change their language until we look into our own ageist tendencies and work on changing our own language; and, by doing so, we develop a powerful weapon to fight this war on old people. When you read, hear, or use language that in some way perpetuates or reinforces ageism, cultivate the habit of imagining alternatives. Ask yourself “How could I have said this in another way?”

Today I am inviting all of you to create space for yourselves and others to imagine what a new alternative language of ageing would look like. All suggestions accepted, staring with “I’m proud to be old!”

Alice Fisher is Founder and President of the Radical Age Movement.

The Voice of Older Americans in an Age of Anxiety: Staying Visible

the-invisible-middle-aged-womanLast month, the Radical Age Movement launched its first social action initiative; Age Justice: Getting Our Fair Share.  Age Justice seeks a society where all people, regardless of age and social circumstance, are secure in their homes, respected in their communities and workplaces, and provided the safety, dignity and respect to live full and complete lives throughout the lifespan, from the time of birth until our final years.  In today’s state of anxiety, we need to campaign so that ALL Americans get their fair share, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion.

Many older adults want to make a difference in the world but, finding no role for themselves, they often feel they are treated as socially irrelevant.  It is up to us to push back against this common age prejudice, and today we are presented with a rich opportunity to do just that.

We now find ourselves positioned in a notable moment in history where we, as older Americans, need to be both seen and heard.  It is up to us to demonstrate the power we own as “caregivers, resource managers and income generators“.  It is imperative that we share “our knowledge and experience of community coping strategies, while helping to preserve cultural and social identities.” [The invisibility of older people: Being counted means being seen, Previously published for the Hauser Center by Bethany Brown, HelpAge USA Policy and Advocacy Fellow]

What we cannot do is shrink back from civic engagement.  It is both our right and our obligation.  When we shrink back, we are creating our own invisibility.  We older and elder adults all too easily accept the marginalized status quo as signs of wisdom and balance rather than the avoidable and deeply unfair compromise that it actually is.  Locked into a rhythm of society’s active rejection and our own passive acquiescence, we glide into marginality partly through our own volition. Not listened to as carefully at meetings or policy discussions, we pipe down rather step up.

This means that those of us who can show up, show up. It’s time for us to take our lifetimes of experience and knowledge and put it to valuable use…to demonstrate our relevance to all of those who would think otherwise …while making the world a better place.

Because of our years of living, we know that sometimes we have to go down to go up, backwards to go forwards.  We know that communities are the best way to face adversity.  We know that wounds can heal.  Older adults are aware of the greater good as we demand a democratic society, not only for us but for the generations that follow us.  Our battle scars show that we are tougher and wiser than we are given credit for.

Over the coming weeks and months, the Radical Age Movement will be suggesting actions that older adults can take as a group to be heard as we help heal the ailments that have afflicted our society. We invite your own suggestions as we embark on this difficult journey together.


Why the Radical Age Movement Supports Black Lives Matter

by: Alice Fisher, M.A., M.S.W.
July 18, 2016

Each time I post something that supports the Black Lives Matter movement on my personal Facebook page, I receive too many responses saying all lives matter. Of course all lives matter, but that’s not the point. There is a reason why we need to support Black Lives Matter. As a white mother and grandmother, I do not worry when my children and grandchildren go out the door that they may never come back.

The first time I received that response, steam started coming out of my ears. I was irate. I called a friend who posted one of those replies and said, “Did you look in the mirror this morning? You still have white privilege, I assume. Who is targeting you? NOBODY!” It is black people who are being targeted, wounded, and killed. Saying that all lives matter completely dilutes the message and the scorching reality of what is happening in America.

As he has for many years, my old friend Michael McPhearson* responded in a different and powerful way. Michael, who taught me everything I know about race and racism, is a black man and ardent social justice activist.

Here is Michael’s take on all lives matter:

White people, many of you need to wake up to the fact that every police killing of an unarmed or clearly not dangerous black person could be you. Black Lives Matter is not only about black people. It is about all people. Why? Because when you defend and protect the freedom and safety of black people in the U.S., it strengthens the freedom and safety of all people.

When advocating for the oldest and frailest among us, how often have we asserted that when institutions and government policies work for the youngest and oldest among us, they work for everyone. By raising up the most vulnerable of us, we raise up our entire society.

The Radical Age Movement is proud to support Black Lives Matter. It is in the interest of everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, religion, or economic status. As we at Radical Age advocate for age justice, we are advocating for all categories of justice for each and every one of us.

*Michael McPhearson, Executive Director of Veterans for Peace, a native of Fayetteville, NC, was a field artillery officer of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. His military career includes 6 years of reserve service and 5 years active duty service. On the steering committee of United for Peace & Justice, Michael works as an activist and facilitator to help bring about social and economic justice. He received the 2015 Hershel Walker ‘Peace and Justice’ Award from the Missouri/Kansas Friends of the People’s World as co-chair of the Ferguson Don’t Shoot Coalition.

Consciousness Raising: Its Time Has Come Again

by Alice Fisher. M.S.W.

Like many women my age, I participated in the feminist consciousness raising movement of the sixties. It was a powerful vehicle for exploring our innermost feelings about being women, mothers, daughters, wives, and our role in society. For many of us it was the first time we confronted the issue of misogyny (or even knew what it meant) and, not the least, got to touch our own misogynist inclinations having grown up in a male dominant society.

Here I am over 40 years later doing the same thing. Only this time, the topic that my consciousness raising group is exploring is ageism and what it means to grow old. A main difference between our aging consciousness raising group and the feminist groups of the past is that the group is made up of both men and women. Aging makes no gender distinction, and we all grew up in this virulent youth culture that says young equals good and old equals…well, let’s say, not so good. We are a 10-person group, aged 60 to 85. We meet every week for 1-1/2 hours. In order to make it easier for the group, we meet in person every other week. On the weeks in between, we connect virtually through our computers. To our surprise, this has proved to work remarkably well. Our hope is that as we confront our own ageist attitudes we will be able to change the way we perceive aging ourselves and hopefully change society’s ageist attitude towards the old and elderly.

Ageism is an interesting prejudice. Aging is the common denominator for everyone who is born. If fortunate, we are all going to get old. We are all going to die. So being judgmental about people just because of their age, or their wrinkles, or their slower pace, is sowing the seeds for our own internalized ageism.

As we progress in our own consciousness raising initiative, we are creating a manual detailing how to start an aging consciousness raising group so that others can benefit from the work we are doing and to guide them in starting their own groups. Our experience is sometimes smooth flowing and other times bumpy. It is our intention to smooth out all the bumps before we pass the information along to others who have an interest in doing this work.

So, what do we talk about in these sessions? Sometimes we have a topic prepared so that members can reflect on it before we meet. Other times the issue that we begin talking about arises organically out of conversation…many times it is a question that someone asks or a situation in which they find themselves and feel that age or ageism is part of the problem. Recently, we spent two entire sessions on the topic of “help”…how we ask for help, how we offer help. Which is better…being independent or interdependent? Most of us were raised to value autonomy. The message was that we should be able to do everything by ourselves. To ask for help was a sign of weakness. As we age, do we still feel that way? What makes it easier for us to accept help? Many of us have experienced push back from our own parents when we determined that they could no longer function on their own.

We talk about the elders with whom we have had relationships and how those relationships shaped our thinking about aging. We share stories. We share our innermost feelings about our own aging. And, we talk about the advantages of being old and the contribution that older adults give to society. Sometimes we are exploring new territory, and sometimes we are looking at relics that are outdated. We have noted the conflation of the aged and the disabled. Does someone’s physical abilities make them either old or young? What about the older adult who has an expansive mind, always curious, always learning? Is she defined by her wrinkles or her mind? We are all guilty of ageism at one time or another.

I’ll end this with a personal story. My husband and I had the opportunity to be with old friends that we had not seen for a very long time. On the way home, our conversation started something like this; “Did you see Kathy? Doesn’t she look great!” “Yeah, but did you see Susan; she is not aging well at all?” “I can’t believe Joe uses a walker to get around. He was such a great athlete.” “But then there’s Dan who looks so young for his age.” In mid-sentence I stopped myself. “Can you believe where we are going with this conversation?” I asked. “What ageists we are”. The first thing we noticed was how young or how old everyone looked. No mention of who accomplished what or overcame obstacles in their lives.

We immediately went for the jugular because we are both in the same consciousness raising group.  We were able to catch ourselves and reflect on how automatically we were equating the way our friends looked with how old they are. Why does Dan have to look good for his age? Can’t he just look good! How do we know that Susan is not aging well? Just because she has more wrinkles on the outside has nothing to do with how she feels or who she is on the inside. We just automatically went into our own ageist rant.

Would we have recognized the ageist language we were using if we weren’t part of an ageing consciousness raising group? I doubt it. Finally, from another group member who had previously told us how she detested anyone who offered her a seat on the subway because it made her feel old. After only a couple of sessions, she said, “I actually accepted the offer of a seat on the train today,and I felt quite good about it. I don’t think I would have been so gracious if we had not been discussing these issues.”

Aging in Place Can Be Detrimental to Your Health

by Alice Fisher M.S.W.

Surveys show that most people when asked prefer to spend the last years of their lives in their homes rather than in a community or institutional setting. What they fail to consider…or don’t want to consider…is the prospect of being homebound and spending their last years alone with only an aide for companionship. As human beings, we are social animals who are meant to interact. Living in isolation, for most of us, is detrimental to our health and has been shown to be one of the leading health risk factors contributing to the downturn in the health of older adults.

Home health worker BP 300x225 Aging in Place: It Can Be Detrimental to Your HealthUnderstanding that most state governments no longer want to be in the nursing home business and that it is their assumption that it is less costly for both the government and the elderly to remain at home, I can see why the aging-in-place movement has gathered so much steam in recent years. Prevailing ageism also factors in when those who need assistance with activities of daily living choose to protect themselves from the ageist attitudes that pervade the public discourse on “old people.” It feels safer to stay at home.

There is another secret that the aging industrial complex does not like to talk about…the cost.

If ,I will come back to the “if” later on,an elderly person can get the optimum care and needs help 12-24 hours a day, adding this to the overhead of keeping a home, the cost can be astronomical. Because of longevity, the soaring costs of medical care and personal assistance, and the lack of a good long-term care program in this country, many seniors today run out of financial resources before the end of life. In my role as a political social worker, I know that Medicaid was not originally set up to be a long-term care provider; and I am also concerned about the financial strain this puts on government. There has to be a better way, and boomers all over our country are searching for better alternatives for living out their lives.

Why do I feel so strongly that aging-in-place is not the panacea that our government, our media, and the many senior service providers around the country are promoting?

My story starts with Hurricane Sandy. At the time that Sandy struck the east coast of New York, my elderly parents were aging-in-place in their co-op apartment in Long Beach on Long Island’s south shore. My dad, who has multiple chronic conditions that keep him wheelchair bound and unable to take care of his own personal needs, had an aide. His financial resources had already been depleted by the cost of his care for the two previous years, and he was receiving Medicaid benefits for home care. Although he really needed 24/7 care, the most that Medicaid would approve was 12 hour live-in. (This is where that “if” comes in).  Twelve hour live-in means that the aide lived in with my parents but only provided care for 12 hours a day. It seems that my 90 year old mom was determined to be able to care for him the other 12 hours. Well, let me tell you, a 90 year old cannot care for another 90 year old without compromising their own health and well-being. As a result, my parents became emergency room regulars at Long Beach hospital, just a few blocks from their home. In turn my sister and I were also emergency room regulars. A couple of months before Sandy hit we began to have a discussion about aging-in-place and that it might no longer a viable option for our family. And then came Sandy.

When people ask me about aging-in-place, I tell them, “It works until it doesn’t.”

After evacuating my parents with aide in tow and all the attendant chaos around relocating them, we came to the realization that they could not return to their home. All of the services they used were compromised or non-existent. The hospital was washed away and has not opened to this day. My mom’s doctor’s office was under water, leaving her with no medical records. Fortunately my dad’s medical care was being provided at home by the Veterans’ Administration, so his care could continue without too much interruption. The only blessing we could see at the time was their car, which floated down the road with every other automobile in Long Beach.

With the advocacy and support of my colleagues in the aging community of NYC, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale came through and provided a permanent home for mom and dad. My mom, who passed away this past January, spent the happiest year of the last ten years of her life there. She was 91 years old. Her life in Long Beach was becoming more and more an isolated existence.  Most of her friends had died and the burden of caring for my dad kept her from leaving her apartment except for her trips to the supermarket and doctor. With the responsibility for my dad lifted, she was now free. Although frail and deaf, her cognizance was excellent.

She made wonderful friends, joined in activities, began going to synagogue on Friday nights, went on shopping trips, and began to care again about what she wore and how she looked. Her best friend at the Hebrew Home was Rose, who was born deaf and was teaching my mom American Sign Language. She attended several 100 year old birthday parties. She and my dad celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary at the Hebrew Home with all their new friends in attendance. The other thing I noticed was that she was secure about having her own needs met…no more 911 calls and emergency room visits. She fully embraced her new home.

My dad, who needed 24/7 care resided in a different section of the facility, where he remains today. All the buildings on this beautiful campus are connected to each other, and my mom saw him every day and was his best friend and advocate. The common denominator among my dad’s floor mates is their inability to care for their own physical needs. There is, however, a huge cognizance spectrum. My dad seems to be located about mid-point on the spectrum. It is easy to discount the inner humanity among these people who are often confused, do not make sense even when talking to each other, and sometimes do not even seem to be aware of their surroundings. I must admit that my own ageist attitudes often came to the surface when I would visit his floor. One emotional and dear incident changed my entire perception of who these people are.

My mom died of congestive heart failure, and she did not suffer much at all. She had only been diagnosed about three months before her death and was only ill the last three weeks while spending the last week in the hospital. Although we tried to prepare my dad, his memory issues prevented him from fully grasping the situation. After she passed away, my sister and I went to tell him. He was in his dining room just about to sit down to dinner. We wheeled him out to a private area and broke the news as gently as we could…but there really is no gentle way. He reacted as was expected and appropriate. It was very sad.

When we were feeling the need to leave, dinner was over; and most of his floor mates were out wandering the halls in their wheelchairs and with their walkers. As you can imagine, we were having a difficult time leaving. I walked over to one of the aides, saying, “We really need to go, but it’s so hard for us to leave him alone and just say ‘bye dad, we’ll see you tomorrow’.” She waved her finger and said, “No, no. You see all these people. They are just hovering, waiting for the two of you to leave.”

As we waited for the elevator, my sister and I could see into the area where we left my dad. One by one, each of his floor mates came up to him, and each in their own way told him how sorry they were. Some just patted his arm, others hugged him, and as we were getting on the elevator, we watched the aides help them form a circle around dad. I turned to my sister and said, “He’s not alone.”

Who is Old?

by Alice Fisher, M.S.W.

Who is old?  What does old mean?  Who decides that you are old?  Who do you identify as old?

Is it age?  Do you automatically become old the day you start collecting your social security? Some people collect at 62, some at 66, and some at 70.  Or, maybe it’s the year you become eligible. Can it be the day you retire from your career job?  Or maybe it’s the day you become a grandparent.

My mother-in-law didn’t become old until she turned 90, while my mother decided she was old at 80. They self-selected when to be old. Meanwhile, my best friend who has a form of rheumatoid arthritis self-identified as old when she was only 55. So, it’s possible that old is when you need assistance with certain activities and realize that you are slowing in your performance. A 72 year old friend mentioned to me, “I can’t believe how much longer it’s taking me to walk to the office each morning. I used to be such a fast walker.“  Is she now old?

I am certain that my grandchildren identify me as old, while my peers tell me how young I look. Maybe that’s the answer. Old, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. My husband tells me I look as young as the day we met, which can hardly be true since that was over fifty years ago. Maybe we are old when our hair turns gray. Yet, I have a friend who went prematurely gray in her thirties.

Another answer might be that we are old when we start receiving senior discounts. I do have a senior Metro-Card that entitles me to use New York City’s subways and busses at half price. I have an AARP card, and I now go to movies and visit museums for senior admission rates.

Do all cultures and societies see “old” similarly?  Eastern cultures tend to value age and equate age with wisdom. Unfortunately, Western cultures put a higher value on youth. This causes many of the aging people I know to go to great lengths to appear younger than their actual age. I have an 85 year old constituent who came to see me one day carrying a large umbrella. “Is it raining?” I asked. “Oh, no”, she replied, but I refuse to walk with a cane.”

We, here in the United States and other Western industrialized counties, are experiencing a longevity boom. People here may not be perceived as old until they are in their 70s or maybe even 80s. Yet, in third world countries that are ravaged by war and hunger, people are perceived as old at a much younger age.

So, old may be determined by the place you live or the era in which you were born. My grandmother at 70 was an old woman. I am 68 and would not be described as an “old woman” by most people I know. Old can also be determined by one’s environment or the circumstances under which one lives. Those who live in poverty and those who are marginalized may not have access to good health care or healthy food. People who live in these minority communities are old sooner than those from middle and upper class majority neighborhoods.

So, it seems then that old is a socially constructed category. What old is to me may be different than what old means to you.

There is much truth in the adage, “Once you’ve seen one old person, you’ve seen one old person.” We are aging from the moment we are born; and the more we age,–the more we experience our own individual lives–the more diverse we become. Our individual lived experiences then may be the only key to determining when each of us is old.

Are you old?  If so, when did you become old?  If you are not old, what makes you see someone else as old?  Why do you think a society’s definition of old is important?

Ageism & the Anti-Aging Industrial Complex: What Does Wisdom and Beauty Look Like?

by Alice Fisher, M.S.W.

How do you feel when you sit down to unwind in front of the television at the end of the day and you are bombarded with ads that tell you to “Stop the Hands of Time with Mrs. Smith’s Anti-Aging Formula 801”?  Or, you may want to try a little cosmetic surgery to lift that chin, or maybe some Botox to iron out those wrinkles.  This reminds me of laying my head across the ironing board while taking my mother’s two-ton steam iron to my long curly hair to straighten out the curly tresses that I obviously inherited from some mutant gene, but that was in the early sixties before curls were in.

Now, I am in my sixties, and they are telling me to leave the curls while erasing the lines of wisdom and experience from my aging face. I just don’t look good enough—code for “I don’t look young enough”.  What don’t I look young enough for, I ask myself.  I am fortunate to still be part of the workforce, but maybe if I looked younger I would get that raise I’ve been wanting.  Alas, the people that pay my salary know how old I am and assume that I’m not going to make any waves when so many of my peers are shipwrecked on the shore praying that a job, or maybe a little Botox, will arrive to save them.

anti aging creams 1 300x225 Ageism and the Anti Aging Industrial Complex: What Does Wisdom & Beauty Look Like?Back to the TV ads. Every time, I see Debbie Boone touting the wonders of Lifestyle Lift, a company that provides facial and neck cosmetic procedures, I wind up in front of the bathroom mirror pulling my obliging skin back to see what I would look like if I just took a little from here and a bit from there.  Ugh, I am so mad at myself for even considering for a moment to alter the face I was totally comfortable with only 10 minutes ago.

It’s all about ageism.  It’s all about the youth culture in which we’ve been immersed.  It’s all about the message from the girl whose hair was spread across the ironing board: “Do not trust anyone over 30!”  So many retouched faces that we admire are telling us that we can look younger too. But, can we really trust anyone who looks older than sixty or seventy?  It’s all so familiar. Remember all those air brushed waifs that were presented to us telling us that we also could become “walking x-rays”?  All of a sudden anorexia and bulimia became part of the American lexicon.

I didn’t know if there was a term for people who are addicted to plastic or cosmetic surgery, so I looked it up.  This is what I found:

There is not a term for the addiction, but there is a recognized psychological disorder that affects some surgery addicts. It is called “body dysmorphic disorder” (BDD), and sufferers have a distorted image of their own appearance. This is sometimes manifested as disapproval after surgery is performed, leading to another surgery to correct the apparent flaws. Because of the high costs of plastic surgery, this disorder is usually apparent only in the very wealthy.  Read More

Whew, that’s a relief.  I am definitely not rich enough to have BDD.

A number of years ago I attended a “Wise Women’s” conference and participated in a workshop led by a Native American Elder.  To this day the image of her stunning lined face stays with me.  I thought of how I hoped to look like her when I became an elder myself.

The signs of age that mark our bodies are badges of wisdom, something that we need to be proud of, not something to be to be ashamed of—and certainly not something to erase.  I don’t want to go back to the age when my skin was perfectly smooth and taut and my mind was empty.

It’s time to let advertisers know that we want to see people we can identify with—people (especially women) who look like us. Wrinkles can be beautiful and we need to create a culture that sends the message that lines of wisdom are in.

A Call for Radical Aging

by Alice Fisher, M.S.W.

In the 60’s, we raised our voices to put an end to racism, sexism, and to end a war.  Now, we are in our 60’s and we need to dig down deep to raise those voices again to put an end to ageism.

If there is any certainty in this world, it is that we are all journeying in the same direction.  We are all going to age, we are all going to, hopefully, get old, and we are all going to die.  How we age and how we prepare for the last part of our life’s journey will be shaped in great part by the society we live in.

Do we want to take that journey in an ageist society?  As women, do we want to remain invisible, spending time and money trying to erase the signs of old age and wisdom from our faces and bodies while hoping someone will see us and/or hear us?  As men, do we want to cling to myths of virility and strength, trying to deny the inevitable? Or, do we want to be respected, even revered, for lives lived and the knowledge and experience that comes with actively living through the many challenges we’ve faced?

As boomers and seniors, we have an obligation, a duty, to make our voices heard, speaking up for and molding the kind of society that will not see us as the “other”.  Many of us raised our voices in the 60’s to help create the civil rights movement, the anti-(Viet Nam) war movement, and the women’s rights movement.  Now, we are in our 60’s, and we need to dig deep down to re-energize those voices today to create a Radical Aging movement.

Longevity is here.  It’s everywhere.  It permeates the media, in professional journals, memoirs, movies and theatre, you name it.  More of us are going to live to be older than ever before in history, and our children and grandchildren even older. The effects of longevity are tenfold, affecting our health care choices, our work environments, and our relationships within families.  You may have already bumped into the challenges of longevity as caregivers of your aging parents who are in their 80’s, 90’s and 100’s. If you haven’t been there yet, it will, I can assure you, be one of the truly life-impacting eye openers that you experience on your life’s journey.  It is a front row seat view into a future that needs a movement to change it.

We are a generation that has lived through great societal changes, some good and some not-so-good.  Some of the positive changes still need refining, but there is no doubt that we made them happen.  Some I mentioned above; civil rights and women’s rights, and more recently, gay rights.  Our lives have been influenced and molded by constantly evolving technological innovations; we have new ways of communicating through social media.  We Skype or have facetime with our families who are more often separated by greater and greater distance.  We’ve moved from an insular world into a connected world.  Once only talked about, we can now see, often in real time, how what we do in our personal lives impacts other lives, not just in our own communities but on a world-wide level.  Medical research and the attending technology have contributed to the unprecedented length of life, and this is presenting challenges that are only first being addressed.  On every level and in every walk of society we are finding choices that were never available before.  We spend a lot of time trying to determine what is available to us and what we really want.

Yet, as we celebrate longevity, we stigmatize growing older.

It is time to change the accepted language of aging. All the descriptive aging stereotypes that pervade our culture and collective conscience need to become non-p.c.   We are so much more than boomers, seniors, senior citizens, aged, ancient, crones, oldsters, codgers, golden agers, geezers, old-timers, grannies…and here’s on I just came across…coffin dodgers.  Any of these sound like compliments?  We live in a culture of age and death deniers.  Putting old people “out to pasture” is no longer an acceptable metaphor.  Neither is putting them out to the golf course, shuffleboard, nor bingo.

As we age we become more and more diverse.  The longer we live, the more opportunity we have to be shaped by our life experiences which render us more dissimilar than alike.  One size does not fit all.  There is diversity in how we age biologically, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.  We bring “value added” to society.  Yet, in a culture of ageism and denial, to be recognized for that “value added” is an uphill struggle, and it is time for us to take up the struggle.  We proved in the past that we can effect change, and we are just going to have to dust off those banners and slogans, put on our most comfortable walking shoes and get out there again.

I leave you with this anecdote from my own experience:  I’m 60 years old and sitting in a class on public policy for the aging.  Next to me is this very sweet 20-something young woman, arduously taking notes and following the instructor’s every word.  After hearing the statistics on senior health issues and senior poverty, she turns to me and says, “I’m never going to get old.”  My response is, “I really do hope that you will.