We are living longer than any time in modern history. Fewer of us are dying at birth, in childhood, young adulthood, and middle age. According to a report from the University of Oregon, at the turn of the 20th century, U.S. males surviving into adulthood had an average life expectancy of about 60 years, women just a year or two more. By the start of this century, the average life expectancy for people living into adulthood had risen to about 75 and 80 years for men and women, respectively.
This sounds like great news. Most of us will have 15-20 more years to live and love than our great-grandparents’ generation could have expected. But wait just a minute. Perhaps it isn’t such good news after all. Most media mentions of our increasing longevity turn quickly from gratitude for the gift of longer lives to one or more of the numerous shadow sides: from the bodily travails of physical decline in old age to frightful personal and social costs of an aging population. Our fears about aging, individually and as a society, are at the roots of ageism.
PLNU sociology professor Dr. David Barrows said, “With industrialization and modernization society becomes production oriented, and the elderly become less esteemed in favor of folk in the prime of life.”
Sociologist Donald Cowgill also observed this trend and in 1974 called it the theory of modernization
Gerontologists have observed modernization’s varying roles in shifting diverse sociocultural systems of elder respect. From Confucian filial piety in East Asia, to animistic ancestor reverence in African cultures, to family-clan structure in the Pacific islands, some cultural systems are resistant—yet none can be fully immune—from modernization’s changes.
Before the dawn of the modern age and later the information age, seniors were perhaps among society’s best technology. They were valuable repositories of agrarian information, skills, and wisdom. As the pace of technological innovation has increased, families have moved off of farms, and new career fields and specializations have emerged. Unlike agrarian generations of the past, most of us don’t work alongside our aging parents. Consequently, our elders are too often seen as superfluous to our modern economy.
Do we still see seniors as a gift, or do we call them a burden?
As our elderly population increases and with the prospect of living longer, we might expect our society’s attention, respect, and care for the aged to also grow. We might hope for young and middle-aged people to better accept and celebrate the natural aging process. But society’s prevailing stereotypes about aging aren’t so rosy. Our thoughts about others’ and our own journey of growing older are often infected with ageism.
Pioneering gerontologist Robert Butler was raised by his grandparents. He went to medical school with a dream to serve elderly people like them. Once there, he encountered professors who spoke derogatorily of the elderly. After a 10-year longitudinal study on aging, he coined the term “ageism” in 1968. Butler defined ageism as “a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender.
Our world is infinitely complex and all of us employ stereotypes as tools of categorization and simplification to help us wrap our minds around a fantastically variegated and unpredictable world. Often, stereotypes are grounded in some element of truth or personal observation. But just as often, stereotypes are incomplete and not entirely accurate. At worst, we use them to justify unfair prejudices and acts of discrimination.
The apostle Paul taught in Galatians 3, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Yet, stereotyping occurs even within the church.
in America, Margaret Morganroth Gullette addresses how ageism develops. We begin picking up stereotypes implicitly from our parents in early life. We hear the ways that our adult caregivers, older siblings, and peers speak of others, and we observe the way they treat them. If we hear negative stories bemoaning aging or overhear sharp complaining about ‘old geezers,’ those are the seeds of an enduring ageist stereotype.
Yale psychologist Becca Levy says that when we hear shortsighted stereotypes about the elderly or other groups, our most common response is silence. It is all too easy to forget that we are all future elderly people.
Challenging such forces in our society that promote ageism gives us teeth in our fight against it.
Ageist stereotypes operate on several levels. On the macro or structural level, stereotypes function as part of our national social and youth-worshipping media culture. Perfect toned and taut bodies are the rule; they are virtually all we see in advertisements. PLNU nursing professor Dr. Jeanne Maiden, R.N., who has provided professional nursing care to aging people in chronic and acute disease states for more than 30 years, believes ageism is not rooted in the realities of aging but in this ubiquitous fixation on youthful appearance.
“We try to distance ourselves as far as possible from the aging process,” Maiden said. “All of the products that promote youth and fight aging just aren’t realistic.” Even products and services advertised specifically to the elderly are presented by the younger-old. The cover of the August issue of AARP Magazine is graced by 56-year-old Gloria Estefan. Model Cindy Crawford, age 47, markets a line of anti-aging beauty creams. Product marketing often depends on an illusion of youthful perfection presented as the equivalent of fulfillment and happiness.
On an organizational level, ageism can be manifest in governmental, corporate, or other group policy. About one fifth of all employment discrimination claims filed in California in 2010 were based on age discrimination, more than race and sexual harassment. Several large corporations have been sued by groups of older laid-off workers for allegedly illegal discriminatory ageist policies. Former employees from Ford, Goodyear, 3M, BASF, Capital One and others have claimed they were dismissed on trumped up criteria despite their seniority.
Personal and Interpersonal
Stereotypes On a micro or interpersonal level, ageism happens between my neighbor and me when I behave in ways that my elder may rightly perceive as discrimination based on her age.
A study conducted by the Duke University Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development showed that most people over 60 years old report experiencing ageist jokes, assumptions of sensory or other physical impairment, or worse yet, being ignored and disregarded. When old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills, ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.
Some nations have taken to legislating against ageism on this personal level. Recently, the Chinese government passed a law banning disrespect of elders and requiring people to visit their parents regularly, no matter how far away they live. In 2004, France passed civil code 207 requiring people to stay in regular contact with their elderly parents.
Stereotyping of the elderly happens outside the family, too. Ann Rearick is a chaplain for the Church of the Nazarene who served in hospice and then hospital settings for 35 years.
“I’ve certainly met people who said the doctors would talk to their sons or daughters rather than them,” Rearick said. “They found that very annoying. They would say, ‘Look doctor, talk to me; I am the patient.’ Some doctors assume when you get to a certain age that you no longer understand what is going on.”
Maiden has seen similar thinking among nurses.
“I’ve seen [ageism] in health care settings; particularly nurses will have a predetermined view of the elderly,” she said. “For instance, if they hear that a patient is 80 years old and going to undergo a fairly extensive surgery, a lot of the comments are things like ‘I don’t know why they’re doing that, that poor individual. What kind of quality of life could they have?’ There is a lot of prejudgment that occurs.”
But perhaps the most insidious threat from stereotypes is when we internalize them. If we have heard, believed, and operated on a stereotype long enough, we can begin to make it true in our lives. Levy studied 660 adults over age 50 correlating their self-perceptions of the aging process with their ultimate longevity. She found that individuals with a positive perception of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with a negative outlook on it. The finding was true regardless of the respondent’s age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health at the time they were asked about aging.
Altering Our Perspective
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson came up with a theory of eight successive stages in our lifelong journey. He suggests that adults aged 35-64 live in the tension between generativity and stagnation. Do we use our lives to create and flourish or do we become idle and unmoving?
Erikson says that for adults 65 and over, the tension changes. Life becomes a journey in the space between ego integrity and despair. Do we look back on all that has been and feel confident in our identity and self-narrate our life a story of progress, achievement, and integrity? Or do we feel that our lives have been wasted and lack meaning?
Each of Erikson’s stages build upon one another, and the tension points at each stage form a continuum more than a destination. We grow through middle age by tasting both great generativity and also twinges of stagnation. A strong ego identity in old age doesn’t mean that we aren’t also from time to time tempted by despair. Our thriving at each stage prepares us to thrive in the next.
Today’s young people likely don’t think about it, but they are building a self-image that they will inhabit in old age. We may imagine that there is an unavoidable sharp turn into old age misery at some particular age. However, in the book The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life, sociologist Sharon Kaufman finds that most elderly people feel much the same inside as they did as young adults. Healthy identity creation continues into advanced age. For those moving to the despair side of the continuum, this is a lifelong trek, not just something that befalls people at a certain age. In fact, as Morganroth Gullette suggests, late life despair may be more likely caused by internalized ageism than by aging at all.
“I think we all want to have a sense that we have done something, created a family, a career,” PLNU’s Barrows said. “It doesn’t matter what it is in some ways: We were a good parent, a good worker, a good church member. There are lots of ways you can be productive in the world and in your own small way make a positive contribution.”
Older adults can reflect on their past generativity while they continue to create and contribute. “As people age, they can choose to be comfortable with [their] aging,” Maiden said. “They can recognize limits if they have them, but also recognize that there is strength and value in what they can contribute.
As they age, life does not need to be filled with despair or meaninglessness. People have valuable things to contribute to their family, to relationships. We must make peace with the fact that this is a one-way street that we’re on. We only pass by once. We can enjoy what is before us and live in the present, trying not to fear.”
Addressing Financial Fears
As the baby boomers age and, on average, live longer than previous generations, ageism creeps into how we think about the medical and social security expenses. It is important to remember that old age itself doesn’t have to be an expensive condition. Butler and others have shown that it is diseases that cause medical expense, not age. There may be some increased onset of certain diseases at advanced age, but we should not confound the two. Healthier choices and better preventive care at all ages and stages will help us avoid preventable diseases and live longer and healthier lives.
It is also a myth that dying is always expensive. It is true that most people will incur the greatest amount of healthcare expense in the year before their death. Yet for most of us, our total healthcare expense in old age will still not be very high. According to the Alliance for Aging Research, only about 3 percent of people over age 65 incur high costs at the time of their death, the kind of costs related to aggressive medical care.
Addressing Our Fear of Suffering and Death
Many of us dread growing old because we assume that the last years of our life will be characterized by pain and suffering. Perhaps we have seen our own relatives and older friends struggle, and we’re afraid of that happening to us. Though as Christians we may have deep faith in Christ and little fear of death, we might fear a long and slow dying process. Such anxieties are stoked by ageism, and they, in turn, promote ageist thoughts.
“It’s as if nobody has a good old age anymore, let alone a good death,” Morganroth Gullette says.
The truth is that there have been many medical advances in palliative care and pain management. Despite the grief of loss, even those who die from chronic or acute illness may have a dying experience that is positive, dignified, and a profoundly spiritual time for individuals and their families. Unfortunately, too few physicians are educated in end-of-life care.
“In general, physicians tend to view palliative care as a defeat,” Maiden said. “In medical school, they are taught to pursue cures, but in many of the diseases that are plaguing our society, there is no cure. It is difficult for physicians to speak knowledgeably about these issues unless they have gone through it personally.”
Maiden makes an effort to bring end-of-life issues into her nursing courses as often as possible and has developed and taught a course on death and dying.
“Aging is associated with dying, and for the most part, we are a death-denying society,” Maiden said. “We don’t talk about death; we don’t even want to see it.”
Anxiously, we want to master-control our lives and our death in an effort to somehow avoid grief, but aging and death are unavoidable.
“We simply aren’t going to win against our natural life cycle, and we will all experience death,” Maiden said. “I think we need to acknowledge and celebrate the fact.” When we do, we can see our aging as meaningful and valuable. We can even use the dying process as a time to mend relationships and bring closure by having important conversations with loved ones.
“One of the ways not to fear [death] is to have conversations early and often about what kinds of care you want, what your beliefs are, and what your preferences are should the time arise when you can’t speak for yourself,” Maiden advised.
Changing Our Narrative
Morganroth Gullette suggests that there are two overarching ideologies on the life cycle and aging process: progress or decline. Is aging about positive growth and development or an unstoppable decline?
“Being too old, we are inveigled to believe, is a personal problem, aging,” Morganroth Gullette says.
But she reminds us that it hasn’t always been this way; elders in prior generations didn’t seem to talk so much about being burdens or having “senior moments.”
“When my father-in-law said to us youngsters, ‘I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know,’ it was a boast,” she said.
She believes it’s not aging itself we should fear, but the pervasive ideology of decline into which we have bought.
Barrows is now semi-retired and teaches part time at PLNU. He takes a glass-is-half-full or life-journey-as- progress perspective on his own aging.
“You change physically, emotionally, in your energy level, and different things become important
at different points of your life,” he said. “I wouldn’t see aging as decline. It’s just a different phase of life. You gain experience and hopefully wisdom as you age … You can emphasize the positive aspects or the negative aspects of aging, and I choose to emphasize the positive.”
Barrows challenges the stereotype that old age means a mind in decline.
“Short-term memory can get worse as you age, but for me, it just feels that I have more and more things in my head, and it just takes a little longer to bring a fact up,” Barrows said. “The file cabinet is just more crowded with accumulated learning and experience.”
Maiden shares the concern that people overemphasize that age means their bodies will degenerate.
“People have a mistaken belief that aging is something negative,” Maiden said. “I’ve seen a number of older people who I rather admire because they have not bought into that thinking.”
“The more clearly we see ageism at work, the less we’ll blame aging,” Morganroth Gullette says. “The more empathetic we teach ourselves to become to other victims of decline ideology, the more liberated we’ll feel in ourselves, and the more empowered to urge necessary reforms.”
As children, we can’t wait to be older. We anticipate and covet the marks of progress through school. High school students look up to college students like they rule the universe. Then at some point, we begin wishing that we were younger again. We begin making jokes about our age. All too early, we begin feeling that we have passed the prime of our lives. Worse yet, we unconsciously internalize stereotypes that make us afraid of old age and old people. We engage in ageism in small and big ways. Even in church, we too often keep the youth and the elderly separate.
Without giving it much conscious thought, we buy into an ideology of decline, and it frames our own expectations of our life cycle. Inside, we still feel young, but media and youth-worshipping culture remind us all day long that we don’t look “forever 21.”
An ageist ideology of decline is incompatible with a Christian theology of resurrection. We are born into a sinful world, and as we follow Christ throughout our lives, we progress spiritually. Our faith-life journey is characterized by growth in grace and an ever-deepening awareness of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives. We don’t just grow in God despite the traumas, challenges, and losses of life. God uses all things to make us new.
Christian author Joyce Rupp writes, “I discovered that for the Christian, hello always follows goodbye in some form if we allow it. There is, or can be, new life, although it will be different from the life we knew before. The resurrection of Jesus and the promises of God are too strong to have it be any other way.”