I couldn’t understand why there were so many old people at my high school reunion. Had I come to the wrong room? I scanned name tags wondering, Didn’t we used to be the same age?
“Why, you look just the same!” I greeted a classmate whose hair was snow-white. No resemblance to the yearbook photo pinned on her blouse.
But whatever I thought of my classmates’ changed looks, I’d spent years applying an even harsher scrutiny to myself. I scurried past mirrors without peeking, like a vampire. An accidental glimpse caused me to sneer back at myself in contempt. My self-esteem vanished as hairs sprouted from strange spots. Where were my eyebrows, which once blossomed bushy enough to need plucking? Wrinkles on my neck sent me shopping for turtlenecks. I was even self-conscious in front of my grandchildren: “What are those brown spots on your hands?” one would inevitably ask when we were dyeing Easter eggs. So I dyed my hair instead. Grumbling about these changes was a habit hardly appreciated by the husband living with the cranky woman I’d become.
What I had was a bad case of ageism — even if it was directed at myself.
Yes, indeed, I’d seen those “over the hill” birthday cards on store shelves, poking fun at cackling crones and forgetful geezers; fuddy-duddy stereotypes to remind us that we live in a youth-obsessed society. In some countries, elder citizens are respected as treasure troves of wisdom, honored for their decades of acquired knowledge and life experience. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi asks for peaceful acceptance of the cycles of change. That means revering old age and the joy of discovering beauty within life’s imperfections.
All too often in America, however, we are name-called like children on the playground. A fender-bender is no longer an accident but deemed the loss of faculties, an excuse to suspend licenses and independence. Senior citizens are considered out of touch and useless, their Social Security and Medicare drains upon society.
Age discrimination pervades every aspect of our culture and affects public policy: health care, education, employment, economics, and housing. Youth is worshiped, driving people determined to outsmart the aging process to spend millions of dollars annually. Magazine ads promise endless secrets to preserve youth. Television commercials offer products with “anti-aging ingredients.” “Skin repairs” vow to “kiss wrinkles goodbye,” because “looking younger has never been easier.”
Like most seniors, I encounter age discrimination. When I offered one employer my résumé, she responded with a condescending smile, “We’re always looking for volunteers, ma’am!” Companies seldom award gold watches to retirees these days. “So, when are you retiring?” people ask, wondering when someone younger will take your place.
But work means more than a paycheck. It provides a sense of purpose, identity, and fulfillment. These days, many older workers remain on the job and employers observe their performance improving with age. They may be over 70, but they work well with others on the team and prove flexible when confronted with change and challenge. Due to long experience on the job, they have much to contribute and teach younger colleagues. I was born when FDR was in office, before the end of World War II, which means I’ve witnessed more history than some of my younger colleagues combined.
But, although society’s bias against age enraged me whenever I encountered it, it took some time for me to realize that I held many of those same attitudes. I finally got it through my thick, white-haired head that I had been practicing the very same age discrimination that I was so set against. My negative attitude was aging me faster than years. Self-loathing and self-pity were preventing me from fully enjoying life.
I didn’t have to join in the chuckles when younger colleagues poked fun at my “senior moments” and technological gremlins. I wasn’t on reality TV and I couldn’t afford Botox injected into my muscles to eliminate crow’s feet and frown lines, like some Hollywood starlet. There would be no face-lifts for me, no liposuctions or surgical fixes to reduce my wrinkles and fat. Old age is not a disease to be prevented and these remedies won’t keep you from catching it.
If you don’t wish to live in a society that discriminates against aging, then start with the mirror. Since you can’t run away from age, you may as well celebrate it. The secret to combating ageism is to stay curious and keep on learning: Lately, I’ve been yearning to paint a picture, study Spanish, and fire pots in a kiln.
I was recently at a pharmacy when the clerk asked me my date of birth. I replied that I was born the same day of the year (May 29th) as John F. Kennedy, Patrick Henry, and Bob Hope. “You’re doing a lot better than them, lady,” the man behind me said. “They’re all dead!” And he’s got a point. After all, old age is the only way to live a long life.
Juliet Haines Mofford is a former museum educator, currently working as an author and historical researcher in Maine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.