When I fall into one of my “woe is me” moods about the ravages of aging, it helps to remind myself that aging is a privilege. Not everyone gets to age, and many who are still alive to age don’t experience it due to the ravages of cognitive impairments such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
It’s with great amazement that at age 69 I find myself still alive and free of a terminal illness (other than my mortality). My father and only sibling died before age 60. Although my mother lived into her 70’s, she did so with a form of Alzheimer’s that tormented her daily (“Where am I?” I don’t know what to do.]. Aunts and uncles on both sides of my family tree died well before age 70.
I have not enjoyed aging.
It isn’t fun to have diminished hearing and vision as well as a greatly decreased energy level, and significantly reduced ability to multitask. Don’t ask about my annoying lack of short-term memory - especially for names and faces. I’ve always been a big list person due to my visual recall being better than my auditory.
That part of the brain that remembers faces and names atrophied a long time ago. And it doesn’t help to have a mild form of dyslexia making it a challenge to remember things that are paired -- the hot vs cold water faucet, for example, or two names that sound alike, such as “Rebecca” and “Jessica”. Remembering the correct choice of these pairings has nothing to do with choice or will power. All the will power in the world wouldn’t help my brain to consistently distinguish correctly which word to use when confronted with cross-wired twosomes.
Putting aside all of the physical and mental challenges of aging, then there is the problem of ageism -- . stereotyping and discriminating against persons because of their age.
You can see it in people’s eyes when they first meet you. They take in your white hair, wrinkled and sagging skin, your aging body, and other clues of age. They immediately peg you as over the hill and less relevant than a lame duck.
Next they try to avoid eye contact with you and quickly turn away. Having been categorized as someone who doesn’t have anything interesting to say or have any relevance, you become someone to quickly evade less you bore them with long-winded stories of your aches and pains, or worse yet, tales of the way things were when you were young.
Many of us are guilty of doing this on occasion -- pigeon holing older persons as boring, dull, and needy for social interaction, and then avoiding eye contact to prevent the possibility of long-winded conversations about their ailments, grandchildren, and the good ol’ days.
Your brain makes you do it.
Ageism is rampant because it operates primarily at a subconscious level.
Neuroscience has identified the areas of our brains that trigger fear, anxiety and disgust when we see snakes and spiders. It’s those same areas of our brain that are activated by unconscious biases towards social groups based on race, age, gender, and sexual orientation. This can occur even for people who have no conscious prejudice towards others - they are unaware of these reactions taking place in their minds.
Neuroscience and the study of implicit bias help raise our awareness of our unconscious or implicit biases and preferences for certain groups -- providing important clues about why we treat each other with concern or cruelty, show compassion or disdain, and pass laws that help or hurt specific social groups.*
But the buck doesn’t stop there. We can’t blame the brain once we are aware of its transgressions. Just because we may be programmed to stereotype and scorn the aged, that doesn’t mean we don’t have some degree of choice about counteracting our innate ageism tendencies.
We have to start with ourselves. Those of us who are now aged have to overcome a self-loathing instilled by invisible cultural norms through movies, comedy sketches, stereotypes, and naked contempt.
We also need to honor ourselves by making whatever effort we can muster to be the best that we can be under circumstances frustratingly beyond our control -- such as eating healthy, exercising regularly, stimulating our minds with hobbies, reading, music, and positive endeavors. That includes stifling any inclinations to be cranky, crabby and complaining along with any scorn we may feel for the fast pace of change thrust upon us.
Sometimes when I’m aware of an initial negative reaction to someone, I have found it helpful to look for the adult they once were. Watch their faces and listen to their stories, and you might connect with who they once were at their pinnacle, and revere the lingering traces of that in who they are today. I’m grateful to live in a world which my aging peers have contributed to in varied ways both large and small. I’m grateful to have the privilege of aging.
Adjusting to the inevitable ravages of aging is not unlike the confusing and daunting effects of puberty on our minds and bodies that we wrestled with as teens. It’s helpful to trust -- trust life and the aging process that it is taking us inexorably to whatever happens next. We don't know what happens next - but we can trust that it is exacting what it needs to be.
• Ageism at Wikipedia.com
• The Hard Science of Civil Rights: How Neuroscience Changes the Conversation, by Kimberly Papillon, Esq., available at: http://www.equaljusticesociety.org/law/implicitbias/primer/