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The End of Ageism

Until I turned sixty-six, I lived for decades as an unreflecting and unapologetic ageist. I'm not a mean-spirited person; I pride myself on being open-minded and progressive.

Until I turned sixty-six, I lived for decades as an unreflecting and unapologetic ageist. I'm not a mean-spirited person; I pride myself on being open-minded and progressive. But somehow my prejudices about old people seemed to be natural, to reflect the facts of life, to share in the universal consensus. Being old was simply bad, wasn't it? This felt like an incontrovertible and a basically uncontroversial position. In youth-worshipping, plastic-surgery-tweaked America, ageism stands as one of the last widely acceptable social prejudices.

The term "ageism" is an abstraction. It strains to capture a varied and complex phenomenon. As used here, ageism comprises systematic neglect, segregation, isolation, and bigotry. Like other prejudices, it works by constructing artificial barriers. On one side of the wall, older people languish, mistreated and misunderstood, viewed less as persons than as ready-made types. On the other side, younger people lose access to a vast store of wisdom and experience. In this way, ageism acts like an environmental toxin. As it spreads, it imperils us all, old and young alike, and everyone indulges in it. It's reflected in our workplaces, courts, laws and public policies. In movies, on television and in commercial after commercial, we see seniors portrayed as cute, helpless and feeble, stumbling through what's left of their lives in a fog. We've developed a whole vocabulary to express such prejudices: "Uh oh, are you having a senior moment? Are you sure you can handle all this by yourself? What are your plans? A little bingo? A few laps around the old mall? Or maybe you'll stay in, catch up on your programs?"

It is probably impossible to measure how much society loses by tolerating prejudice against the old. Studies have correlated experiences of ageism with memory loss, cardiovascular sickness and low self-esteem. One study suggested that experiencing age discrimination diminished the will to live. Another reported that seniors who harboured negative views about old age faced life expectancies that were, on average, seven and a half years shorter than those of their peers. All of this is staggering when we consider how ubiquitous ageism is: In one study, 70 per cent of seniors surveyed reported they had been insulted or mistreated on the basis of their age. A couple of years ago, I began conducting research for a project about aging in America. One of the people I interviewed, a resident in an assisted-living facility for seniors, asked the facility to arrange to put me up in a spare room for a night. He thought that spending a full twenty-four hours there would help my research. I declined as politely and as firmly as I could. To be honest, the prospect made me deeply uncomfortable, as if old age were contagious. I got over this eventually but it made me realize that, for much of my life, I'd had relatively little exposure to the old. Our society is tacitly segregated. We are educated alongside people who share our birth year, spend our working lives with people our own age, or within a decade of it, and when it comes time to retire many of us flee to sunny places, to be close to other retirees. Consider: do you have a friend or acquaintance outside your family who is over seventy? Under thirty? But that's changing. North Americans will soon experience a demographic upheaval of a scale not witnessed since the Baby Boom. During the next two decades the number of people over sixty-five will double. Thanks to remarkable advances in medicine and technology, we can look forward to better health and longer average life expectancies. We will also, on average, be wealthier than many of our younger cohorts. In short, we are primed to live long and live well, and to serve as the standard-bearers of an idea whose time has come: ageism, in all its forms, is unacceptable.

Brendan Hare is a retired attorney and the author of From Working to Wisdom: The Adventures and Dreams of Older Americans. For more info, visit fromworkingtowisdom.com.