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Sunday, December 6, 2009

An "-ism" All Must Face

As you keep aging (and you are) and as people qualify everything you say and do (and they will), you become more and more a part of a large disposable file of society. No, you're not likely to become one of more than twenty-seven million people in the world who are still trapped in one of history's oldest social institutions -- slavery. You won't wind up as a chattel in the brick kilns in Pakistan or as a hostage in the brothels in Thailand; however, your value will become that of a similar, cheap human commodity. And, as an aging American, you will become more and more disposable in the eyes of the masses as time passes.

The hints of this reduction in worth can be subtle, well-disguised, and gently distributed by those in control. Often cloaked in custom, the stings of inequality amass with relentless regularity. Like cheap Bic lighters, many older people in our society have become temporary contraptions of inevitable disposal. Almost no institutions repair people, recycle them, or rehabilitate them. Old lives simply wear and wear until they are largely forgotten and simply discarded.

Common sense shows that very little compassion exists for a single life of anyone deemed as disposable. In fact, if people are found to be defective in any manner, they are, for all practical purposes, politically labeled --  "behaviorally challenged" or "mentally ill" or "physically impaired" or "senior" -- and quickly prepared to be filed under their permanent tab in the "disposable" file.

Whatever the cause of this devaluation, culture assigns little value to the broken individual. It recycles garbage but not people. They are not allowed to be anything else once they have achieved a label of separation. Instead of commonly giving up on the defective, shouldn't people strive to rehabilitate and refurbish all?

Today, unless people are wealthy or popular personalities with fan-granted imperfection immunity, the population shows little concern in keeping the broken individual alive and well. To the rich and famous, society offers sympathies for abuse, lies, and nearly any other fault. Others in need, with no carte blanche of fame, are forgotten. A possible exception could be the support for the right to life for an infant. Yet, somewhere within this age-based empathy lies a lesson about values and preference, no matter how difficult the comparison may be to view. A old life is a less valued commodity.

Ageism And Its Hold On America

Maybe this dispensable attitude has grown because there's such a huge overpopulation of older people now, and  older citizens have lost value in the mere quantity of their very abundance. Melissa Dittman (, May 2003) reported that those over the age of 85 make up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and nearly 35 million Americans are over 65 years old, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Incredibly, that number is expected to double by 2030 to 20 percent of the population.

The mere thought of vast numbers of elderly members of society, who are often seen as more dependent and weaker than any other age group, inhabiting America frightens those who feel the elderly contribute little to society.

The condition of gerontophobia (fear and hatred of the old) causes others to treat seniors as if they were a contagious disease. As Dr. Ursula A. Falk  ("Discrimination Against the Aged," related, "They (younger people) may not want to form a friendship with a senior citizen in their feeling that they will soon die anyway and they do not want to become attached lest they will suffer pain from the anticipated loss."

A relatively new term, ageism, was birthed by gerontologist Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging in 1969 to describe a condition similar to gerontophobia. Ageism is a prejudice (a mentality, a judgment, or an opinion) or discrimination against an individual or group in society due to their age. (W.A. Achenbaum, Societal Perceptions of Aging and the Aged, 1985)

In truth, those younger people who suffer from ageism "subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings." (Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse,, 2007) Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves. Those who are 60 or older may too often  find themselves victims of this stereotype of ageism. Most older people are considered weak, frail, and disabled; however, some positive stereotypes of aging do include assumptions that these people are wise and caring.

The International Longevity Center - USA ( reported ageism, found cross-culturally, is "one of the most pervasive prejudices across human society." Less acknowledged than racism or sexism, it results in widespread mistreatment such as stereotyping, physical and financial abuse, unequal treatment in the workforce, and denial of appropriate medical care and services. Seniors are stigmatized and marginalized, with often devastating consequences. 

"Ageism is especially prevalent in the United States, where most people regard growing older with depression, fear, and anxiety," says Todd D. Nelson. ("Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons," 2004)

Common examples of ageism abound. For example, when elderly people are unsure of themselves, they are declared as infirm, or senile. When they miss a statement, they are accused of being old, instead of having difficulty hearing. Or when showing distaste, they are called "cranky"  (B. Robinson, Ageism Teaching Module, published by the University of California, 1994)

Robinson sited common (false) stereotypes that cause fear of aging and hostility towards elderly people as including the following:
  • Mental Deficiency/Deterioration
  • Ugliness
  • Isolation from Society and Family
  • Uselessness
  • Impotency
  • Physical Frailty 
Psychologist Becca Levy, Yale School of Public Health professor, and her colleagues (American Psychological Association,, May 2003) reported that not only are negative stereotypes hurtful to older people, but they may even shorten their lives. In a longitudinal study of 660 people 50 years and older, Levy found that people with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of aging. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 83, No.2)

In the same study, Levy also found that older adults exposed to positive stereotypes have significantly better memory and balance, whereas negative self-perceptions contributed to worse memory and feelings of worthlessness.

Levy said many Americans start developing stereotypes about the elderly during childhood, reinforce them throughout adulthood, and enter old age with attitudes toward their own age group as unfavorable as younger people’s attitudes.“It’s possible to overcome the stereotypes, but they often operate without people’s awareness,” Levy said. “Look at all the talk about plastic surgery, Botox — the message is, 'Don’t get old.'’

Reasons For Ageism

* Discrimination based on age may not even seem like discrimination to many. In a society that enforces ageism, individuals may see such treatment of different age groups as normal, and repeat the abuse on the next generation of children who, in turn, see their actions as proper treatment since the adults around them are the only role-models available.
* Individuals can be aware that they are hurting someone, but they pass the responsibility to a person in higher authority to justify their own actions; claiming it was an order or mandate. 

* Many people are simply resistant to change. They may react with hostility if confronted with something bold and new.This is particularly difficult if it involves a change of values or perspective.

* When the media largely ignores senior preferences or stereotypes senior maladies, many people follow this influence as their preferred behavior.

A Biblical Conclusion

Dr. Ursula A Falk ("Discrimination Against the Aged," reminds people of a longstanding directive.
"In the Ten Commandments, the only one that contains a reward is the Fifth: 'Honor thy mother and thy father that thou shall live long on earth.'"

And the Talmud says that since there are three partners in the creation of a person (God and two parents), honor showed to parents is the same as honor shown to God.

This tenet has been long forgotten for the elderly parents and other senior citizens among us. The old are frequently treated with less than honor or respect. They are ridiculed, multitudinous jokes are made about them, and they are often treated as non-persons in our society.

The Little Boy and the Old Man

Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon."
Said the old man, "I do that too."
The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."
"I do that too," laughed the old man."
Said the little boy, "I often cry."
The old man nodded, "So do I."
"But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me."
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
"I know what you mean," said the old man.
         Shel Silverstein

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