Old Myths: Confronting Aging And Ageism At The Brooklyn Historical Society

The Brooklyn Historical Society hosted a panel discussion on November 29, 2016 on Aging and Ageism, bringing together a distinguished panel that included Ashton Applewhite, author of the book, This Chair Rocks, John Leland of The New York Times, Dr. Veronica LoFaso, Director of Geriatric Medical Education at New York - Presbyterian Hospital/Weil Cornell Medical Center, and our own Dr. Ellen Cole, co-creator of 70Candles! Paula Span of The New York Times was the moderator.

Although it was a very rainy New York evening, the enthusiastic cross-generational audience filled the auditorium. At question time, many hands were raised. There was an excitement in the air--perhaps signifying the realization that by 2020, 35 percent of the population will be age 50 or older. Or that the first of the baby boomers turn 70 this year, and they are a force to be reckoned with.

Ellen, the oldest panel member at age 75, shared several of her personal experiences with ageism. In a recent medical visit for strep throat, for example, the intake nurse assumed she was retired. "Absolutely not," she replied, for she continues to work full-time as a psychology professor, feels at the top of her game, and, at least right now, hasn't the slightest interest in cutting back. And the fact is that nearly 20 percent of Americans 65 and older are now working, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For 75-year-olds, labor-force participation has risen from 9% in 2000 to 14% today. Part of this increase is likely due to financial concerns, but certainly part to what has been called "the increased propensity to work."

Other examples were given, in particular, of microaggressions of ageism--things people say and do, often with no intent to be disrespectful, that imply a bias against older people and can cause distress and hurt. Panelists agreed, for example, that "adorable," "cute," and "sweetheart," are not terms of respect and may be condescending and infantilizing when used to describe older adults. A prime time for unwitting insults, they agreed, is at birthdays. It is not a compliment to describe an older person as "80 years young," or to say, often enthusiastically, "Wow, you don't look that old," or "Did you just turn 39 (wink, wink)?" Ellen recalled, for example, hearing on the radio that Florence Henderson, the "upbeat Mom of 'The Brady Bunch,' died on Nov. 25, 2016 dies at 82 years young."

One panel member opposed the idea of publications, for example newspaper stories, mentioning a person's age. Ellen and others felt otherwise. They believe there is no reason not to be proud of being whatever age you are. What better way to dispel myths surrounding old than to be open rather than secretive or coy about the number of years one has lived. An audience member said she did not want prospective employers to know her age, fearing she wouldn't be hired (in spite of anti-discrimination law). The panel agreed this is a reality, but until old people speak up about their age, this prejudice is unlikely to change. Ellen advised, "Old people, come out of the closet."

There was a lively conversation about current trends for later-age living arrangements, including aging-in-place, a variety of innovative multigenerational living situations (e.g., college students being offered free room and board in an assisted living community), and so on. One panelist made the compelling point that it is often younger people devising what they think would be best for the elders. To him that seemed backwards. First ask the elders what they want! The panel agreed there is no cookie-cutter answer to what works best for everyone.

Other discussion topics included end-of-life issues including the current national debate about medical aid in dying, caregiving, and elder abuse. The conversation ended after an hour and a half, as advertised, but all agreed there was much, much more to say. Ellen's take-home message from this panel was this: "The Brooklyn Historical Society organized an exceptionally important and successful event. Let's not stop here."

70Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade by Jane Giddan and Ellen Cole is available from Taos Institute Publications, taosinstitue.net/70Candles.
70Candles! Gatherings-A Leader's Guide by Jane Giddan and Ellen Cole is at Amazon.com.