(Next Avenue invited our 2017 Influencers in Aging to blog about the one thing they would like to change about aging in America. One of the posts is below; we will be publishing others regularly.)
When Next Avenue named its 2017 Influencers in Aging, a group I’m proud to be in, the site asked us: If you could change one thing about Aging in America, what would it be?
My answer was: Eliminate stereotypes. We are all pioneers, crossing shifting/surprising terrain. Longevity is an individual and collective gift. High quality of life relies on what we actively do with what we’ve got or can create. The catalyst isn’t age. It’s active intention.
I’d like to expand on that thought here:
- Demond, 66, looked at his mother and said, “Why can’t you act your age?” His mother Polly, 88, had started taking hula dancing lessons.
- The young medical receptionist looked at Sue, 72, and said, “Just take a seat, honey. Standing can be hard work.”
- The dermatologist, 43, looked the patient, 66, in the eye and said, “I’m reluctant to give you this prescription because it’s my consistent observation that people over 65 can only manage and track a small number of daily medications.
These stereotypes aren’t imaginary examples. I’ve seen them all first-hand.
Thread in a Tapestry
Ageism, like any stereotype, doesn’t stand alone. It is woven like one thread in a complex tapestry of prejudicial stereotypes, which might include the threads of ageism, racism, sexism, cultural biases, financial capacity, educational affiliation and social classism. The potential list is endless.
To eliminate stereotypes requires understanding that they are a habitual way of thinking, individually and collectively. It also requires understanding five things about them:
Stereotypical descriptions may be individually or situationally valid, but they are always collectively simplistic and untrue. One person might not be aging well, while 100 others are.
They can originate anytime and be aimed at anyone, anywhere. Sadly, older people can be just as ageist towards each other as anyone else.
Stereotypes are often a mean-spirited form of put-down masquerading as humor. “Can’t you take a joke?,” people spouting them sometimes say.
They can be a product of putting your assumptions on autopilot. Years ago, you and a friend may have reached a negative conclusion about someone you knew who wasn’t good at dancing. But neither of you has been aware enough since to reconsider that decision.
Stereotypes can be a shared form of our belonging together. When you and I belong to the same group, we reinforce each other’s safety in belonging. “As long as we’re together, we don’t have to be alone or wrong,” you may think. “And they will never be accepted into our club.”
In the end, it’s almost impossible to extinguish one stereotype or another without destroying the tapestry into which we have woven it across our lives. This is because stereotypes actually reflect a way of thinking, patterns of speech and habits.
Stereotypes aren’t essential for leading a great life. They are essential for a life based on faux superiority, resentment and always having to be right.
Eliminating lazy stereotypical thinking requires awareness, intention and action. It means willing to throw our stereotype systems and tapestries — not just a few threads — away.
7 Ways to Eliminate Stereotypes About Aging
Here are seven ways to do this:
- Stop buying any products or services marketed by companies that are reinforcing stereotypes.
- Avoid spending time with people who apply stereotypes as an ingrained way of life.
- Stop subscribing to, or viewing, any media that originates or perpetuates stereotypes.
- Listen carefully to what you say and think, keeping a journal of self-observations.
- Ask others to listen to you and be the reality check for your use of stereotypes.
- Take a hard look at the communities of which you are a member. Are they affinity groups with little or no diversity of thought or humanness? If the answer is yes, replace any you can.
- Make friends with, and spend time with, people who are the targets of your stereotypes.
It won’t be easy, but it can be done. It’s called active intention.