November 24, 2023

How Old Is “Too Old”?

Several months ago, I wrote a piece in this newsletter about the problem of ageism in our society. I did not expect to return to the subject so soon, but I have been upset by how much age has become an issue in politics—and not in a good way.

President Biden’s age has been a big topic of 2024 coverage, but if Trump wins the presidency back, he’d also be the oldest person ever to be inaugurated. In many polls, Americans say, flatly, “They’re too old.” Trump, who is 77, often mocks 80-year-old Biden as feeble and confused, while Trump’s Republican foes highlight the former president’s own gaffes.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has launched a “Trump accident tracker” that’s intended to highlight slip-ups and controversial statements from the former president, telling reporters he's “lost the zip on his fastball.”

And the media tags along for the ride. Recently, the opinion page of one major newspaper featured several cartoons satirizing our “political gerontology,” including one where an elementary school teacher is pointing to a picture of the White House asking her students, “What’s this building?” To which one boy enthusiastically calls out, “It’s a nursing home.”

A few weeks later, a New Yorker magazine cover depicted a cartoon of Biden, Trump, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Nancy Pelosi in an imaginary foot race—all using walkers.

I get it. People are worried that our political leaders may not be physically or mentally up to the task of handling some of the most important and demanding jobs in the world. I’ve had a number of friends tell me, “I’m not ageist.” Biden is just too old.”

Yes, you are ageist. See, here’s the problem: If you say a person is “too old” as shorthand for saying they’re “not capable,” you’re perpetuating the stereotype of aging as inevitable decline. “Old age” becomes synonymous with slow, frail, decrepit, incompetent, perhaps senile.

That’s not to say that there aren’t significant health challenges as we age; of course, there are. But when “old” is used as a shortcut for lack of ability, it short-circuits the important conversation we need to have as a nation about the process of aging—what it means and how we can do it well, with dignity and justice for all.

Dr. Robert Butler, the pioneering gerontologist who coined the term “ageism” more than 50 years ago, had it right from the beginning. During a 1968 interview with the then-fledgling Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein (now age 79) Butler was reflecting on community resistance to a program to establish housing for older moderate-income people in a wealthy neighborhood bordering the District of Columbia.

“I was struck,” Butler said, “by the parallel to sexism and racism in terms of negative attitudes toward age. ‘You know, it’s really an outrage,’ I told Carl. ‘It’s like racism, it’s ageism!’” The newly coined term made it to a page-one story in the Post, and eventually the term found its way into the dictionary.

It's high time we acknowledged what Robert Butler pointed out in the 1960s, that ageism should be called out for the -ism it is, alongside racism and sexism. Although we have laws designed to protect workers against age discrimination in employment, our culture is still imbued with an adulation for the young and diminution of the old.

Stand-up comedians seem to have no reluctance perpetuating the last socially acceptable bias, telling the kind of jokes about old people that they wouldn’t dare say about women or Blacks.

Granted, our obsession with staying young in America isn’t about to end anytime soon, but I can still sense that ageist attitudes will likely subside for one simple reason: demographics. Virtually every country in the world is experiencing growth in the number and proportion of older persons in their population. In the United States, 1 in 6 Americans are over age 65, and in 10 years, the number of older adults will outnumber the number of children under 18.

Even in professional sports, where we’re constantly searching for the next young phenom, we see a growing number of older athletes performing at a high level. More coaches and managers are extending their high-stress careers beyond traditional retirement ages.

Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, is 71. Bruce Bochy, manager of the Texas Rangers: 68. Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs: 74. Too old? Take a look at their records.

In my previous article on ageism (https://roelresources.com/love-in-an-age-of-ageism/) I offer a number of ways we can all combat ageism:

  • Embrace the many benefits of getting older—gaining knowledge, experience and wisdom that was not possible to achieve in our youth.
  • Refute negative stereotypes and language about older adults when you encounter them.
  • Educate people about the significant economic, cultural and family contributions that older adults make to society.

But besides these specific efforts, what I’m most intrigued by these days is the emergence of several broad-based initiatives in recent years to tackle ageism head-on.

For example, The National Center to Reframe Aging (https://www.reframingaging.org/) has become a central hub for a long-term social change designed to improve the public’s understanding of what aging means and the ways older people contribute to society.

Led by the Gerontological Society of America, the center has trained more than 100 local facilitators since 2019 on the research and fundamentals of reframing aging so they can play a role in teaching others and changing the narrative.

In Boston, the city’s Commission on Affairs for the Elderly decided that one of the first steps toward changing negative stereotypes was to eliminate “elderly” altogether from their name. The agency was rebranded as the Age Strong Commission (https://www.boston.gov/departments/age-strong-commission).

The commission’s website notes that “strength comes in many forms. Strength of community. Of cultures. Of experiences… Strength to embrace new chapters and opportunities. We believe that Bostonians who are 55+ make our City strong and vibrant.”

Four years ago, the commission embarked on a provocative public awareness campaign featuring images of older adults that strive to promote positive views of aging and excise offensive adjectives—like cranky, frumpy, fragile, senile. The agency is continuing to host community conversations about ageism and is producing a guide for residents, “How Will You Age Strong?”

Indeed, in today’s society, where celebrities and products are often defined by their brands, the way we might ultimately combat ageism is by “rebranding” old people.

One enterprising approach I discovered recently is the “Old People Are Cool” project (https://oldpeopleare.cool/). It was launched by Linked Senior, a Washington, D.C.-based company that produces technology to support life enrichment and dementia engagement for older adults and their care partners. The company’s online store sells an array of branded “Old People Are Cool” products (T-shirts, hoodies, water bottles), with profits going to the Alzheimer’s Association. And it offers an aspirational manifesto:

We Believe

Growing old is the purest and most positive experience of human existence.

A society’s worth is measured by how it treats its elders.

Ageism currently isolates and marginalizes older adults, dulling our communities,dampening our reason for being and inhibiting our collective achievement and optimal growth.

Let us unite against ageism and ignorance.

Let us dissociate age from the stereotypes of weakness and irrelevance.

Let us be enriched by the wisdom, grace and patience that elders offer.

Let us respect that a person is a person no matter how old.

Let us comfort those in need, support the vulnerable, and be patient toward all.

Let us celebrate intergenerational, interdependent values.

Let us embrace and respect aging adults as a valued part of our culture.

In doing so, we will become better, we will become ourselves, we will become immortal.

May the Age be with You.

Yes. And also with you.

—Ronald E. Roel

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