Anti-Ageism: The Next Big Social Movement

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A Review of Ending Ageism or How Not to Shoot Old People
By Margaret Morganroth Gullette
Rutgers University Press, 2017
Forty years ago, Erdman Palmore, a senior fellow at the Duke University Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, published a series of questions – the Facts on Aging Quiz – designed to provoke group discussions about aging and old age.  To his surprise, the quiz revealed that most Americans knew very little about the aging process and harbored many misconceptions, most of them negative. Among the most common misconceptions were that the majority of old people (age 65+) were bored, angry, irritated and unable to adapt to change and that at least 10% of them lived in nursing homes.  For years Palmore and other gerontologists, used the quiz in classes and public forums to educate people about the facts of aging.  They knew from previous research that the more knowledge people gain, the less negative and the more positive attitudes they hold about aging.
In 2017, Americans still need to be educated, perhaps even more so, if the proliferation of negative behaviors and hate speech toward old people is any indication.   Of all the prejudices that divide us, ageism is still the most universally shared and tolerated.  It can be hostile and overt, like the Facebook comment that “anyone over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad,” or more subtle and passive aggressive, like the birthday card that makes fun of getting old, the comment that a retired colleague has “let herself go” or your own disgust at the wrinkles and brown spots on your face.  These are mere bagatelles, however, compared to the most serious forms of age bias.
Consider these facts of contemporary life in America:

  • Midlife men, especially those once considered at the peak of their ability and experience, are now widely discriminated against in the workplace.  In some places, such as tech companies in Silicon Valley, discrimination starts at the age of 35.
  • Among the Facebook groups that focus on older adults – approximately 25,000 members – 74% “vilified” older adults, according to one study, and 37% thought they should be banned from public activities like driving and shopping.

What do these facts have in common?  They are all “macro-aggressions” – demeaning, hostile acts toward a category of people perceived as “old.” Such acts are beyond individual control and often beyond our knowledge.
At the level of the individual, consider these recent events:

  • A 70-something actress, the oldest person present, expressed her opinions at a cast meeting of actors rehearsing for King Lear.  She quickly discovered that, despite her years of experience and the fact that she was playing the lead role, the other people in the room ignored her opinions and called her “boring.”
  • A 57-year old medical doctor published an essay in The Atlantic about why he hoped to die by the age of 75.  Having observed his 77-year-old father struggling to recover from heart by-pass surgery, the doctor had decided that his own life would have no value if he became unproductive, disabled, or experienced any type of cognitive impairment.

What do these events have in common?  They are all “micro-aggressions” – demeaning, belittling acts toward a single person (including one’s self) who is perceived as “old” and therefore socially irrelevant.  The micro-aggressions are smaller expressions of macro-aggressions.  In other words, the “too-secret troubles of personal life reel back to mighty structures.”
In her latest book, Margaret Morganroth Gullette documents these and many more examples of our frightened, ageist world.  Where Palmore, a gerontologist, focused on the body and the mind in later life, Gullette, a cultural critic, focuses on cultural responses to aging, specifically, how we are all “aged by culture.”  She has little interest in the body’s aging process per se, arguing that it is primarily culture – medicine, economics, politics, law, media, the arts, language, the stories we tell ourselves about getting old – that defines our experience of and our feelings about age.  Like Palmore, however, she wants to challenge our misconceptions and change our attitudes about aging.  She wants us to take our “personal griefs” and “turn them into grievances” to be aired, shared, heard, acknowledged, and acted upon.
As an independent scholar, Gullette has established a distinguished career in “age studies,” a term she coined in 1993 to describe the arm of cultural studies that shines a laser on aging, age inequality, and ageism.  She has introduced several other new terms into the lexicon of age scholars: the age gaze, ageist ableism, decline ideology, middle-ageism. By giving names to age-related offenses, she hopes to raise public awareness and ignite the fires that fan social change.  A child of activists and a literary scholar, she believes that “reform depends on having the wrongs described, feelingly.”
We learn from Gullette how ageism is just as destructive as other forms of oppression that marginalize, silence and alienate a targeted group.  All “isms” are self-centered and mean-spirited and lead to “increased indifference or neglect, social rejection, disdain or even aversion, aggression, contempt, ostracism, sadism.”  They sometimes escalate from intolerance to violence.
Ending Ageism is arguably Gullette’s most memorable and persuasive work to date because of its calling out of explicit, real-life cases of ageism and for its depth of feeling.  Now in her 70’s, Gullette herself has no doubt experienced her share of ageism, and she is outraged on behalf of herself and all older people who are not seen or valued as unique human beings.
The rallying cry that echoes throughout this book is worth committing to memory: “Fight ageism, not aging.”  It is a crucial distinction.  Ageism is a form of systemic prejudice leveled against people of a certain age.  Aging is the progression of a body through time, and even that is heavily influenced by history and culture.  Aging serves as the trigger for ageism.  Americans may have traveled some distance in overcoming the social biases of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia, but we are still ageist and largely unconscious of the many forms of ageism we absorb from the culture and project outward.  Gullette calls this “replacement bias.”  Having become aware that other forms of prejudice are politically incorrect and morally wrong, we now project our judgements onto aging, old age, and old people.
Where we stand on two big medical issues of our time –Alzheimer’s and euthanasia – provides a clue about our level of individual and collective ageism in America.  Consider these questions, for example:  Do you equate aging with decline?  Are you afraid to get old because of your dread of Alzheimer’s?  Do you avoid people with cognitive impairments?  Do you think of them as “no longer there”?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be ageist.
Yes, aging brings losses, but it also comes with benefits and compensations:  broader perspective, emotional maturity, self-knowledge, kinder regard for others.  As Palmore taught his college students 40 years ago, aging does not necessarily lead to Alzheimer’s. According to a recent report by the Alzheimer’s Association, only three percent of people age 65-74, 17 percent of people age 75-84, and 32 percent of people age 85 or older have Alzheimer’s dementia.  Many older people experience some mild cognitive decline that will never become Alzheimer’s.  Among those who have the disease, it does not eliminate their identity.  Most retain aspects of their personality well into the final stages.
As Gullette sees it, in 21st century America, the problem with Alzheimer’s, “surging at this nexus of disability and longevity,” is cultural. As a consumer society, we are hyper-focused on youth, energy, physical strength, mental acuity, verbal dexterity –those things we equate with productivity and advancement in our information age.  We are afraid to lose control of our minds and bodies.  We are frightened of illness and vulnerability.  So we disassociate from older people because we equate aging with loss and decline.  Gullette wants us to develop new words – and new sensibilities – for working with people experiencing cognitive losses.  For starters, we would stop using the word “dementia,” because it evokes Alzheimer’s (which is only one form of dementia) and leads to shaming and social isolation of those perceived as “demented.”  Then we would work on accepting and validating people as they are.  Gullette models this behavior in describing how she responded to her 91-year-old mother’s cognitive decline.  She focused on the things her mother could do.  She praised her remaining strengths and abilities and pointed them out to the people around her, including doctors and other caregivers, promoting an environment of loving support rather than critical assessment.
The individual’s right-to-die must also be considered in terms of culture.  It cannot be disentangled from other social issues, in this case, the skyrocketing costs of healthcare, debates over health insurance as a collective right or an individual responsibility, and the national discourse of “burden” used to describe caring and being cared for.  But consider these questions:  Do you think that society would be better off if older people who are cognitively impaired or terminally ill refused expensive medical treatments?  Is it their social responsibility to hasten death, given the burdens of end-of-life care?  More specifically, do you think that old men who kill their old, disabled wives and call it “euthanasia” should be exempt from prosecution?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be ageist, depending on the circumstances.
Gullette rehearses the arguments for and against the right-to-die and deliberates long and hard over her own vote in Massachusetts to support assisted dying.  She concludes, ultimately, that the only response that makes sense is to protect the individual’s right to choose.  The old, frail or disabled person must be allowed to decide for him/herself how aggressively to pursue treatment and whether to hasten the end of life, if that is a viable option.  That choice must be made freely, with a clear understanding of consequences, and without familial or societal coercion.   These criteria provide a strong argument for all of us to take the time, as soon as possible and while we are still able, to complete a living will and to assign a trusted medical power of attorney to make those final decisions for us if we cannot.
The subtitle, How Not to Shoot Old People, is meant to be taken literally.  It refers to the man, overwhelmed by the demands of caregiving, who shoots his elderly wife. It refers to the family member who jokes that “shooting grandma” would put everyone out of their misery.  It refers to any old person who, overcome with guilt over becoming a burden to others, considers suicide. It also refers to how photographers often “shoot” old people:  stereotypically, unbecomingly and in ways that strip them of identities that have nothing to do with their age.
Aggressions, active or passive, against old people are the result of ageism.  They tear at the social fabric and undermine the well-being of all people, young and old.  They create a toxic environment where both perpetrators and victims suffer.  (After all, the young perpetrator will someday be old, will experience ageist self-hatred, and will be subjected to the next generation’s age intolerance.)  Gullette draws on shame and trauma theory to explain the emotional and physiological effects of ageism, noting that “shame is the autoimmune disease of the psyche.”  Although not all acts of ageism produce trauma or induce shame, many do.  Over the past twenty years, thanks to the long arm of the media, greatly extended by the internet, shaming has become a normalized response to aging.  This is evident in the rapid rise of the anti-aging movement and the “uglification industry,” which touts plastic surgery and, for the less affluent, a mass of products meant to “reverse” aging.  In this commercialized world, women, especially, who allow themselves to look “old” get the message that they are failures.
Having laid out in urgent tones and graphic detail the many wrongs perpetrated against old people, in the end, Gullette, mercifully, offers a little hope and a specific agenda for healing the micro- and macro-aggressions of ageism.  The reality is that middle-aged and older people are going to have to take responsibility for social change.  We cannot count on larger forces to solve this problem. Neither the United Nations’ convention on the Rights of Older People nor the international Age Demands Action movement has had much impact.  Other well-meaning efforts, such as AARP’s work to save Medicare and expand Social Security, are valuable, but their reach extends only so far.
A successful anti-ageism movement will be a grassroots effort.  Like the encounter groups of the 1970’s, it starts when we get in touch with our “age-wise anger” and speak up:  tell our stories and listen to others’ stories about ageism; develop solidarity with older adults; educate youth, including our own children and caregivers; demand better representation and accountability from the media; and learn how to stand up for ourselves and our hard-won status as elders.  We can also keep track of congressional representatives who support draining the Social Security trust fund and vote them out.
To help us articulate the harms of ageism, guided by a vision of social justice, Gullette offers a “Declaration of Grievances,” modeled after the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments (1848) distributed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton after the first conference in America on the rights of women.  It ends with a plea for all ages: “May the blessings of the elders be apportioned to the deserving, and be heard and valued; and may their reproofs also serve as a guidance to the generations.”
Finally, we can practice anti-ageism on a daily basis among family and friends.  One of the simplest and most profound lessons of Ending Ageism is that we must learn to cherish the old people in our lives, beginning with our own aging selves.
Ruth Ray Karpen is Professor Emerita in the College of Liberal Arts at Wayne State University.  She has written many books and articles on aging, late-life development, retirement, and end-of-life care.  She currently writes a blog on emotional and spiritual development for Smart Strategies for Successful Living