It's Not Easy To Be Old In America

There is much in the news these days about widespread discrimination in America -- heartbreaking stories of police shooting unarmed black men, reports on the shameful rise of Islamophobic violence, and dispatches about hate crimes generated by bias against sexual orientation. Last month a young transgender woman was killed in Philadelphia.

In the October 7 edition of The New York Daily News reporter Melissa Chan wrote:

A transgender woman was beaten and gunned down by a group of men in Philadelphia early Tuesday, police said, marking the city's second transgender killing this year.

Kiesha Jenkins, 22, was ambushed by about five men who began to pummel her moments after she exited a car around 2:30 a.m., police said. She was then shot twice in the back and later died in a hospital, according to authorities.

The broad discrimination and pervasive violence that "different" Americans must confront every day is a national disgrace that reflects the widespread ignorance and deep-seated bigotry that persists in America.

There is another form of discrimination, however, that gets much less media attention. It's form of bias that has long been "under the radar." It's a form of prejudice that is hardly noticed and all too easily accepted. It's a set of predispositions based on age that leads to a fear of aging and an avoidance of older people--ageism. As such, ageism is a bias that cuts across categories of gender, ethnicity, race and sexual identity.

It's not easy to be old in America. If you are an older adult, it is likely that you have confronted both overt and subtle prejudice. Ageism is so pervasive that most people are shocked when someone points out their ageist behaviors and attitudes.

Clearly there are challenges associated with aging, but what is it about our culture that makes getting older so threatening? Consider what Laura Robbins wrote in the most recent issue of Generations: The Journal of the American Society on Aging.

The consequences of ageism influence how we are able to live the last third of our lives, and can even affect our life span. Individuals of advanced age are both under-treated and over-treated by our healthcare system (Palmore, 2001). Age limits our ability to be hired and re-hired after market downturns (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015), putting further economic pressure on the lives of older adults. Perceptions about older adults constrain the types of roles they assume in the community, limiting them as individuals and preventing communities from gaining the wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and energy from what some call our fastest growing natural resource (Greenya and Golin, 2008). At the extreme, ageism is believed to shorten our lives. One study reported that older adults who held negative views about old age faced life expectancies that were, on average, seven and a half years shorter than those of their peers (Levy et al., 2002).

This is a staggering statistic when considering the ubiquitous nature of ageism. In one study, 70 percent of older adults surveyed reported that they had been insulted or mistreated on the basis of their age. In a survey of eighty-four people, ages 60 and older, nearly 80 percent of respondents reported experiencing ageism (Dittmann, 2003).

At a recent convention of the American Anthropological Association, a senior anthropologist in his eighties spoke passionately about what it's like to be old in America. He confessed that the realities of aging in America have been an existential challenge for him. At the conclusion of his talk, he suggested that his presentation was a

...private rebellion against the cultural stereotype of an old person in American culture, which I reject, as I struggle to construct my own vision and my own role as an active and creative old person.

Doing anthropology, even writing this paper today, enhances my feeling of being in the world, restores my sense of self-worth, distracts attention from the physical infirmities of old age, and keeps me feeling more alive.

Ageism also has a negative impact on the contemporary workplace--especially for workers 50 and older. In her Psychology Today blog, my colleague, Jasmin Tahmaseb, a psychologist who studies the challenges of aging, discussed how ever-changing technological demands create conditions of workplace stress. Citing a recent New York Times essay "A Toxic Work World," she wrote...

...that work stress appears to have reached epidemic proportions. According to the author ... only young, healthy, and wealthy adults are able to thrive with the increasing demands of the work world ... Indeed, a significant number of older adults now work in what appears to be increasingly stressful and hostile employment environments ... According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is an increasing number of Americans between the ages of 65 and 69 who find themselves in the labor force. These workers bring skills, experience, expertise, maturity, and conscientiousness to their jobs. Yet all too often they are perceived as outdated, unable to learn new skills, especially when it comes to keeping up with the fast pace of technological change ... Unfortunately this set of attitudes ... has an impact on the day to day experience of older workers. It is a dangerous outlook that often leads to a more stressful work environment and to increasing age discrimination which, in turn, threatens health and happiness, reduces job satisfaction, and for older workers may lead to a feeling of isolation and alienation...

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In American culture negative perceptions about the elderly are commonplace. In commercials and in popular culture it's not unusual to see elders depicted as sickly, fuzzy headed, slow to learn, outdated, or living lives firmly rooted in the past. What's more, if you are not old or are not the caretaker of an aging family member, the burdens of old age are usually afterthoughts.

In many other societies, though, old age -- and the wisdom that develops with it -- is often venerated. Among many peoples in West Africa, including the Songhay people of Niger, elders enjoy a depth of respect little known in America. During my years in Niger I learned that Songhay people believe that the mind develops slowly. For them, the mind expands with experience, ripening with age, which means mastery is a slow process. When a Songhay person reaches elder status, people usually pay close attention to his or her words -- of wisdom. When elders die people not only mourn their deaths but also the loss of the knowledge that the elder's life embodied. The Songhay people of Niger may be poor but they revere and respect their elders. That respect reinforces their dignity and bolsters their sense of self-worth.

Ageism is clearly a cultural toxin that threatens our social future. Most of us are blind to its debilitating effects. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to look to people like the Songhay of Niger to show us a way to a more empathetic society. In so doing we could develop more respect for elders whose wisdom can show us how to live well in the world.

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