Current Awakenings: Ageism
We are undergoing a feminist awakening that hasn’t been completed yet. And that’s really exciting, don’t you think? Who knows what this and other progressive movements will be able to bring to institutions, worldviews and self-understandings.
Having this in mind, I can’t but feel extremely curious and expectant. And with curiosity and expectancy come two questions: what other processes will subvert my map of reality and what kinds of current actions and ideas will I be ashamed of in the future? Or, to put it another way: I am expectant, but what kind of awakenings are expecting me?
Yes, dear reader, I just quoted myself. And it feels good! You should try it some time.
Well… What kinds of awakenings are expecting me? What kinds of awakenings are expecting us? The article just mentioned concluded that many of them are already happening and, luckily, I still agree with myself. In this occasion I’d like for us to talk about one that is rapidly expanding and growing more profound: the awareness of ageism.
This phenomenon, ageism, just like sexism, has many dimensions, and I will not be able to go over all of them, but it is definitely worthy of at least some comments.
We can start by defining it, in its most popular form, as the systemic stereotyping and discrimination of people of advanced age.
When an elderly person can’t find a word or forgets something, we automatically attribute their failure to age, while in the case of someone younger we would consider other explanations. Likewise, when someone of a certain age behaves in a traditionalist way or resists entering the digital world, we easily take their attitude to be, again, a manifestation of their stage in life, instead of, for example, their personality, or the opportunities they’ve had to travel, get a proper education and expand their horizons.
In Western societies, advanced age is understood as a synonymous of ignorance, impairment and general decay, as if these conditions were equally inevitable for everybody through the wide spectrum of ages that go from the fifties or sixties onward. Furthermore, in this culture where a person’s worth often equals their productivity, older people, conceived according to this stereotype, are many times seen as useless or burdens.
But we should always keep in mind the heterogeneity of every social group, and older population is not an exception. I have known seniors whose intellectual capacities were more powerful than most young and middle-aged folks around them, and in my early twenties I met grandmas in Northern Spain whose physical strength and endurance were highly superior to mine. These are not isolated cases.
The stereotype, though, is deep-rooted and institutionally inscribed (in fact, stereotype and institutions reinforce one another), resulting in infantilisation, social oblivion, poverty risk, undesired solitude, discriminations of perfectly able people in the job market, insufficient attention from medical staff who assume illness at certain ages as a rule and leave it undertreated, and lack of representation of their lives, capacities and specific vulnerabilities in political decision-making spheres and the media, where, when depicted, they aren’t generally allowed to be athletic, to use new technologies, to have satisfactory sex lives or to be leading characters; but even the needs of those who match the stereotype are silenced or deprived of their importance.
The situation, however, is changing.
Recent demonstrations of retirees in Spain have proven their capacity to organise and exercise pressure on politicians, changing the map of influential voices within the state. At the same time, TV shows such as Grace and Frankie are challenging the rules of the game in fiction, offering portraits of advanced age people with ability for adaptation, independence, initiative and, yes, sexual relationships, without denying the bodily changes and problematics that tend to happen as time passes.
But Frankie and Grace are wealthy white women, and it is important to be aware that the realities of the majority are considerably different. Ageism intersects with class and gender with especially dramatic consequences, and also with ethnicity and other axes of social location, making, for example, lower-class women of advanced age much more vulnerable than rich men of advanced age.
That said, we shouldn’t make the mistake of taking ageist stereotypes to be something that comes only from the surroundings of those constrained by them. Most of us internalise a negative image of aging from childhood, and we are, therefore, programmed to be ageists. In many contexts, this derives in sad consequences for our own sense of worth and agency as we approach and enter what is commonly understood as old age. I still remember how one of my grandmothers criticised the election of a 71-year-old woman as the mayor of Madrid, because “what is a granny doing in politics?” I also remember the moment she decided she was old enough to be old and stopped taking care of herself.
There is scientific evidence supporting the thesis that the prevalent concept of old age in Western societies can cause depression, anxiety, the adoption of unhealthy habits and derived physical health conditions. Moreover, interesting experiments have pointed to the effects of this stereotype on memory performance. One of them compared the memory capability of Chinese elders, the culture of whom considers old age as deserving of special respect, with the same capability in North-Americans. Chinese subjects performed five times better than American subjects. It seems, thus, that, as stereotype embodiment theory claims, negative social images of aging are self-fulfilling prophecies.
My point here is similar to that made by feminists with regards to gender. On one hand, I am not trying to deny that our bodies and faculties experience changes through time, but I want to stress the fact that the different stages in chronological age are to a relevant extent socially constructed and, consequently, contingent meanings and regulations that many times carry negative economic, social, physiological, cognitive and emotional consequences. On the other hand, I am demanding the recognition and visibility of the specific problematic tendencies of the older population, be them socially induced or not, and an adequate tackling of them. In other words, I am defending the inclusion of this group in the ethical and political framework of the equal value of every human being, the equal right to have a voice and equality of opportunity, along with (allegedly) everybody else.
By the way, and just to clarify, I am not advocating for a consideration of older people à la Chinese. Just like other social groups, older people can be mean, selfish, stupid, etc. And despite having lived longer, they may have not learnt much from life.
To conclude, legal, institutional and symbolic changes will have to be put in place to make it possible for all of us to breath, to take care of ourselves, to participate in society and to find our own sources for self-fulfilment at every stage of our lives. And many of us will soon be monitoring our actions to avoid ageist conducts. Isn’t it exciting?