February 18, 2023

Every Valentine’s Day, we’re bathed in our annual glow of romantic love, showering each other with flowers, chocolates, overpriced cards and prix fixe dinners. 

This day of lovers has gradually expanded to include pretty much anyone else you love—family, friends, caregivers, teachers and school children. (Remember those little sugar candies with messages that you gave to your elementary school crushes?) In many Latin American countries Saint Valentine’s Day has been officially designated as Día del Amor y la Amistad (Day of Love and Friendship).

But over the years, I’ve noticed that there’s one group conspicuously left out of our inclusive expression of love: older people. I’m not talking about our grandparents. Of course, they’re part of our family Valentine celebrations; as individuals, we love our grandparents. We do NOT, however, love old people in this country. We are an ageist society.

The truth is, Americans are profoundly afraid of getting old. We spend billions of dollars on “anti-aging” products and cosmetic surgery, ceaselessly searching for the “Fountain of Youth.” We celebrate young titans who achieve great things at early ages. Magazines publish lists touting “30 under 30,” or “40 under 40.” We don’t acknowledge that many great achievements can only be accomplished through the experiences of living longer, making mistakes and learning. How about producing lists like “60 over 60”?  It would be a much longer list—and deservedly so.

It’s easy to highlight what’s not so great about getting older, especially when we focus on health issues and the passing of friends and family. But if we think back to our youth (without romanticizing it) we surely could assemble a sizable list of reasons why being young wasn’t so great, either:

 We worried about getting a job. Keeping the job. And getting a better job that  could actually support a family.

We worried about finding a partner. And breaking up. And finding a better partner.

We worried about having friends. Having sex. Losing friends. And not having sex.

We worried about our appearance, whether we were in style. Or out of it. Or why we should care.

If being young was so wonderful, why do studies consistently show that young adults in their 20s experience a higher level of anxiety, stress and depression than adults in their 70s?

Part of the problem with American ageism is the persistence of negative stereotypes, starting with the notion that older people are a drain on society. As one aging advocate recently told me, “When we spend money on young people, it’s an investment. When we spend money on older people, it’s an expense.  Older people are considered takers, not givers.” And, as she pointed out, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A growing number of experts and researchers cite what is now termed “the Longevity Economy,” the sum of all economic activity driven by the needs of people aged 50 and older. According to AARP’s recent ”Global Longevity Economy Outlook,” in 2020 people aged 50 and older:

·         Generated $45 trillion in economic value, accounting for 34% of U. S. GDP.

·         Were responsible for $7.6 trillion (56%) of domestic consumer spending.

·         Accounted for $5.6 trillion (42%) of total labor income.

An earlier report found that the older people also paid $1.4 trillion in federal taxes (43% of total taxes) and $5.5 trillion in state and local taxes (37 %); and they provided $745 billion in unpaid services, including volunteer work and family caregiving. Grandparents are increasingly taking on the role of primary caregiver for their grandchildren, with about 11% of all grandparents responsible for their grandchildren under age 18. (See the full Global Longevity Economy Outlook at https://tinyurl.com/3nr58rkn.) 

Bottom line: Older people are an integral part of our economy and society. They’re workers, consumers, caregivers and volunteers, and supporting them actually benefits all generations.

We also need to challenge a raft of cultural stereotypes about older people, the same way we took on misguided views of minorities and women. Because we see older people as the “other,” we assume they tend to be cranky, opinionated, fragile, and unwilling to learn new things. That could describe a 25-year-old as easily as a 75-year-old. Old dogs can learn new tricks, and young pups may not want to learn new tricks.

We use epithets for older people like geezer, codger, curmudgeon, granny, old biddy, dinosaur. I’m not even crazy about the term “senior” or “senior citizen.” I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s just a hint of condescension in these words, as if we’re trying too hard not to say, “older person.” It’s fine. Just say, “older person.”

Even the “liberal” media is complicit in feeding casual ageism, particularly with its preponderance of young, attractive females in prime time. TV is certainly no country for older women. Even younger women journalists are not immune from inadvertent ageism. I recently heard an otherwise positive story about older runners where the reporter signed off by saying, “Running keeps you young.”  No, it doesn't. Running keeps you fit. It keeps you vital. But you still get older.

So how can we learn to love older people—indeed, to love and value ourselves as naturally aging and still wondrous creatures?

Well, first, we can shift the kaleidoscope in our mind to embrace the many benefits of getting older, without fear or favor. As we age, we do gain knowledge, experience and wisdom. We may have trouble remembering names at times—the proverbial “senior moment”–but I would argue that this is mainly because there are billions more items stored in our brain’s memory, like overstuffed cabinets, not because our minds are starting to falter. In fact, research shows that younger minds may be faster at completing certain tasks, but older minds are often better at solving problems because they see patterns in situations that they would not have recognized earlier in life.

Second, when we encounter negative stereotypes about older adults, we need to refute them. And while we’re at it, we also should challenge ageism toward younger people—negative stereotypes, like young people tend to be “irresponsible” or “lacking in respect for authority"… or "self-absorbed, narcissistic, too focused on technology and instant gratification.” After all, ageism can go both ways. Promoting intergenerational activities is a great way to help break down stereotypes and build understanding between different age groups.

Third, we should work more actively in educating people about the contributions that older adults make to society, highlighting examples of those who are active and contributing members of the community. Following Black History Month and Women’s History Month each year, we do celebrate Older Americans Month in May, but this commemoration seems somewhat muted in comparison. It comes in the midst of end-of-year events, school graduations and Memorial Day—the frenzied kick-off to summer. It needs to be a deeper effort, to become part of what we teach in our schools and embedded into public policies that support older adults, like age-friendly communities that promote the well-being of older adults while demonstrating the value of investing in them.

This month, 45 Forward is featuring some terrific guests who have a lot to  say about ageism. On Feb. 13, Ann Monroe, an ardent advocate for older people, will talk about her lifetime commitment  to fighting ageism. And on Feb. 27,  Priscilla Long,  the author of “Dancing with the Muse in Old Age,” will reflect on new ways of viewing old age as a dynamic and productive time, a peak age of human creativity.

So listen in. And remember, as Americans, we historically have tended to value personal independence over interdependence. But aging is not something that happens to other individuals. It is not a disease or disability; it happens to all of us. And what’s best for our grandparents today will likely serve well the young who will be older adults someday.

 —Ron Roel

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