Pride and pitfalls of being an aging role model

Time Magazine – March 28, 2016 – page 62. The View Point Column.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes, “But being a black role model is a double-edged sword of inspiration and frustration…The frustration for the black role model is knowing that thought you are proof it can be done – a happy lottery winner waving a million dollar ticket – the odds are so astronomically stacked against you that it sometimes feels as if you’re more a source of false hope and crushed dreams. A casino shill they let win so the suckers will keep playing the slots…”

If you’re black and you fail, he says, people will say “blacks aren’t up to the task.” If you succeed, they’ll say you had advantages from being black.

Let’s try replacing “black” with “aging.”

If you’re old and you fail (or, quite literally, fall), people will say, “It’s your age. What do you expect?”

If you’re old and you dance, work out or perform outstanding feats with technology, they say, “You’re doing well for your age.” Never mind that what you’re doing would be impressive at any age.

I once saw a television interviewer exclaiming over a white-haired woman who was jumping out of airplanes. That’s something most people won’t do, at any age. But the focus was on how old she was.

I get annoyed when younger women at the gym say, “You are amazing.” I’ve been working out for over 30 years. I’m in better shape than some younger people. Even doctors – on the rare occasions I see them – admit I’m in shape.

But I also must have gotten some good genes. And being old is still far from being a picnic, unless you’re running for president.

Aging and Being Single: Grandmother Hormones

Today’s New York Times Style section included an article, The Bliss of Grandmother Hormones by Dominique Browning.

She has a remarkably frank comment about aging:
“When we’re young, aging looks sort of yucky; frankly, even though it is extremely un-P.C. to say so, it looks sort of yucky when we get there, too. Hence, the magical thinking around skin creams.”

It’s not clear what we’re to make of that comment. Is she saying that yes, older people are ugly and therefore worthy of discrimination?

But, she says, all these concerns about aging disappear when one enjoys the pleasure of holding “a six-pound newborn boy” against “a heart burnished with the patina of age.”

Probably true. As a single person, I get a lot of pleasure out of holding my cat or snuggling with the dog. Age is a non-issue. Just mutual acceptance.

Maybe I should try for an op-ed about that. Not as PC as grandmothers but surprisingly common.

“10 ways to respect your elders”

Not sure how I feel about this article. It’s not easy to transport attitudes across cultures.

In some ways the stereotypes are reinforced, such as asking “elders” for advice. Being old doesn’t automatically make one wise.

But in general, shouldn’t everyone be treated this way? In a medical setting, everyone should be addressed by last name and title. But if everyone else is on a first name basis, why make the “elders” stick out?

It’s fine to serve “elders” first at a family or purely social event, but not everyone likes to be reminded of his or her status. In some contexts, special care comes across as patronizing.

I’m especially nervous about the advice to intrude on someone’s privacy by assuming they’re lonely and want company. No thanks! Nobody should be in a nursing home – they’re evil places. If you’re at a party and see someone who’s alone, it’s nice to seek them out; in fact, it’s a savvy networking strategy.

Age isn’t a useful marker here. Anyone can be lonely, physically limited, or able to deliver wise counsel. Focus on the person, not the age.

Stereotypes of Aging: Sylvestor Stallone cartoon is NOT funny

Stereotypes of aging got reinforced with this photo that got uploaded to Facebook today. I wrote :

“Another ageist stereotype. The man in the cartoon isn’t a 67-year old. Many – perhaps most – people in their late 60s do not need help. A lot of people in their 80s could dash up those steps. We don’t make fun of Asian, gay or black people. Why older folks?”

The response was predictable: “Perhaps we ought to have a sense of humor about our own health problems.”

So I wrote again:
“The danger of laughing at “our aches and pains” is that we tend to attribute health issues to aging when they’re more likely to be related to activity, food or side effects of medication. 
“The problem is, when you encourage people to laugh at older people, then ALL older people won’t be taken seriously when they apply for a job or tell the doctors “No thanks, I don’t want that test.”
“The price of ‘cute’ is being treated like a child or a puppy.
“It’s like black people and watermelon jokes. Or jokes about women drivers, which used to be considered appropriate. It seems harmless till you realize the hidden message.”

Cues create stereotypes of aging

Re article in today’s NYT: What if Age Is Nothing But A Mindset.

In the paper issue of the NYT, a teaser subhead asks,”How far can positive thinking take us?”


Ellen Langer’s research is not related to positive thinking or even mindset. She creates interventions (scientists refer to “manipulations,” a word with neutral or even positive connotations in social science).

Langer just compares the results of those who experienced the intervention with those who did not. The people in the study were not asked to imagine or think anything; they just experienced.

Langer’s studies consistently suggest that these interventions are successful, but it’s another step to suggest that we can create our own intervention by mental gymnastics. That’s another research agenda.

What these results DO show is that people respond to environmental cues in ways that deserve further exploration.

This finding is important because people over 60 or 65 are exposed to negative cues every single day, even if they’re healthy and fit, simply by reactions of people they deal with. Doctors and most medical professions stereotype by age: in fact, many just use the age number to make recommendations, without considering the whole person and the context. (Just google “doctors stereotype aging patients” if you don’t believe me.)

Some young women in my gym have come up to say something like, “It’s nice to see someone your age…” or even the more subtle, “Did you enjoy this class?” – a question that the 20-somethings wouldn’t be asked. Even if the questioners mean well, I’m jolted out of my zone, where I’m just another person taking class, and reminded once again that I’m supposed to be “old.”

It’s always tempting to punch those people in the nose, thus demonstrating my lack of frailty. But I prefer to shock them with recommendations like, “Just stop going to doctors and you’ll age well, too.”