By Constance Garcia-Barrio
Ageism – discrimination toward anyone based on age – is a sneaky thief. It robs both the young and old of being individuals rather than stereotypes. That’s the view of Tracey Gendron, who holds a doctorate in developmental psychology and is the chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Gerontology.
Ageism is both a skewed view of youth and a short-sighted assessment of older adults. “We expect young people to (take) uncalculated risks and older people to be content quietly sitting in a rocking chair,” says Gendron, author of the book “Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It.”
Ageism’s reductive attitude toward older adults, which stresses physical decline that comes with passing decades, can literally steal years from our lives. A favorable outlook on aging may offer protection.
“People with positive attitudes toward aging live on average seven-and-a-half years longer that those with negative attitudes,” says Gendron, who is 51. “The stress of ageism contributes to an increased risk of chronic disease. It’s also associated with a higher presence of biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease.”
Our youth-centric culture makes it tough to sidestep the fear of aging, according to Gendron. “We live with quiet, persistent pressure to have our faces Botoxed, lasered and lifted to try to erase passing years,” she says. “Even intended compliments, like ‘You haven’t changed a bit,’ congratulate us for seeming to avoid aging.”
In her writing, Gendron distinguishes between external messages telling us to dread aging and the internal ones we tell ourselves.
Advertisements that tout the “wonders” of anti-wrinkle creams or jokes on birthday cards that poke fun at advancing years hit us with a negative outlook on aging. On the other hand, we may have absorbed the belief that aging devalues us, so we tell ourselves that we’ll have limited lives as we grow older. Both aspects of ageism – internal and external – can cheat us of the fullness of our later years.
“Ageism is a self-made obstacle to a rich and vibrant aging experience,” Gendron writes. But we have a choice to take a different path. “We need to reframe life’s later years, or ‘elderhood,’ by acknowledging that aging is a complex process. Aging (may involve) natural physical decline, but it also means gains. That is the story less told.”
Embracing a fuller picture of one’s later years can make all the difference. “Elderhood involves a dynamic and simultaneous process of decline (and) emotional, psychological and spiritual growth,” Gendron says. It’s a chance to harvest “hard-earned life experiences to become our unique selves. As we age, we can regulate our emotions better. Our lived experiences reduce the intensity of negative emotions and (improve the feelings of contentedness), as well as promote happiness and calmness. This is aging.”
It takes work to hit the reset button and choose elderhood. “We have to take off the blinders and become aware of negative messages about aging,” Gendron says. We must weigh what advertisements, TV, movies, images or songs say about aging against our own experiences and beliefs.
To broaden your outlook on aging, ask yourself probing questions:
- How do you feel about yourself as an aging person?
- What do you like more about yourself at this age, compared to 10 or 20 years ago?
- What are your goals?
“As you respond to these questions you start to reframe aging,” Gendron says. Journaling may help with the process. We may have aches, but we also have resilience, maturity and wisdom.
“Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It” by ageism expert and researcher Tracey Gendron, Ph.D., dissects anti-aging messages, helps readers to recognize them, and recommends ways that each of us can help end ageism to enjoy the riches of elderhood.
Gendron is also a collaborator for the website OldSchool.info, an anti-aging clearinghouse that provides carefully vetted resources to educate people about ageism and help dismantle it.
Native Philadelphian Constance Garcia-Barrio writes about many topics, including Black history.