Ripeness is All

Ripeness is All

Back from hiatus! I confess that over the summer, I considered making this blog a Trump-free zone, since we’re all so fatigued by hearing him, about him, about his policies and their disastrous effects. But that would be neither responsible nor possible, unless we were proverbial ostriches.

So sure, I’m going to continue reacting to (and acting on) what’s traditionally called politics. Still, in order to continue building energy to turn him out and turn the country around, I’m also going to focus more coverage on those issues usually not considered “political.” This generally means issues with special impact on women, on children, and on men of color. Today’s focus is on an issue that affects (if you’re lucky) you, and in fact all human beings: ageism.

Is it not tediously obvious to anyone who’s not a feminist that ageism has a heavier impact on women than on men? The three front runners for the US presidency are Biden (age 76), Sanders (age 78), and godhelpusall Trump (age 73). While there are occasional comments about that their ages (and even about their all being white males), such references rise nowhere near the level of the huge controversy generated during the 2016 campaign, during which Hillary Rodham Clinton celebrated her 68th—oh my god on the verge of 70 too old to even draw breath—birthday.

We already know that cross culturally women live longer than men, and that widows and single women tend to live longer than married women: make what you will of that. Now we’re about to know a lot more about aging in general and deduce from that how it specifically affects women. The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a global campaign against ageism, which it defines as “stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination” based on age. The WHO has invested half a million dollars in research—a puny sum as such things go–because ageism “affects not only individuals but how we think about policies.” Four teams around the world are collecting and assessing available evidence on causes and health consequences of ageism, how to combat it, and how best to measure it.

They’ll be studying subtle attacks such as prevalent and insidious micro aggression, as well as blatant ones like pervasive employment discrimination, biased healthcare, media caricatures, and invisibility. For women, this compounds the already biased “norms” of systemic sexism and misogyny. One of my women friends, trying gamely to be positive and reposition her experience of intensified invisibility, calls it her new superpower, saying “I could become a highly successful kleptomaniac if I wanted, because no salespersons apparently ever see me, even when I’m standing in front of them at the cash register for 15 minutes.” (This friend is white, yet when I checked her experience with two black women friends, they confirmed it, laughing that they’d been invisible all along——but adding that now, the combination of being “old and female trumps sales force paranoia about a black shopper.”)

We know that when internalized by older adults themselves, ageist views can lead to poor mental and physical health. In other words, when you keep encountering images and attitudes about yourself that claim you’re addled, unconcerned with the future, slow, cranky, and other negative stereotypes, it not only makes you cranky (who wouldn’t be?) but it literally drives you nuts.

Older people who’ve internalized ageist attitudes have a higher risk of dementia and depression, and are less likely to practice preventive health measures such as eating well and exercising. Some of these conditions, of course, are physically based, but we’ve only begun researching how much is attitudinal. Remember that there’s a wide social acceptance of ageism and even reinforcement of it in everyday interactions, on TV, and in social media. Studies have found that children as young as age three already show ageist ideas.

The good news is that interventions——both societal and personal——can change these attitudes. Intergenerational projects and public education as to real facts about aging, tested out by one of the WHO research groups at Cornell University, seem highly effective. It’s unclear, however, how long the positive effects of such interventions last without the reinforcement of an ongoing strong public campaign. Dr. Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health has contributed her important work over 20 years on aging to the WHO project. Her work shows that older people who see aging in positive terms are more likely to recover from disability than those who believe negative stereotypes; they’re also more likely to practice preventive health measures, eat well, exercise, experience less anxiety and depression, and live longer.

Personally, I find that when some hulking young man, earphones on, texting away and not looking where he’s going, comes running down the street and smashes into me; personally, when he knocks me down, glares at me, surprised that I lie splayed on the pavement; when he then mutters, ”Uh, you OK, lady?” while I’m internally checking to see if I can move my limbs; personally, I find that letting loose at him with a flood of electric blue curse words no one would ever expect to hear coming from a 5 foot tall woman with silvering hair––personally, I find that somewhat satisfying. And from his stunned expression, I believe his ageist stereotypes got adjusted, too.

Senior Planet and Old School Clearinghouse are two excellent sources for serious, fact-checked information as well as ways of joining the campaign against ageism. Everyone is welcome to join, from those three-year-olds on up. Because after all, old age is the state to which everyone of any age ought to aspire——especially when you consider the alternative.