Anyone writing about older people with any seriousness will eventually confront the phenomenon known as “ageism.”
The great gerontologist Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, coined this term in 1968 to refer to prejudice against older people fueled by stereotypes about aging that often lead to discriminatory practices.
It’s a phenomenon that pervades medicine, as it does institutions across our society.
Think of a doctor who speaks to a middle-aged daughter who’s accompanied her elderly mother to a medical appointment, not to the older woman herself. It happens all the time.
Think of a hospital nurse who ignores an 80-something man’s increasing agitation and disorientation because of the assumption that it’s natural for older people to be irritable and confused. Talk to families and you’ll hear such stories.
Think of all the people 65 and above – the numbers are untold – who have been told over the years that their medical problems are to be expected because, after all, they’re old and there’s not much to be done about that.
I’ve found myself thinking about all this because of a four-page article by the great American poet Donald Hall in the Jan. 23 issue of The New Yorker.
It’s a lyrical piece about reaching the age of 83, coming to know the rhythms of this stage of life, and feeling connected with others who have traveled the journey of age before him.
Intermingled with Hall’s memories of his mother in her final years are his unsparing observations about himself:
“Each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes I fall. I no longer cook for myself but microwave widower food, mostly Stouffer’s. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. … For years, I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I kill somebody … New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses.”
Becoming advanced in years, Hall writes, involves a process of becoming an “alien” – another type of life form, different from everybody else. He doesn’t use the word “ageism” but describes its effect.
“When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.
“People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be good-hearted, and is always condescending.”
Describing his reaction to a woman who has written to the local newspaper calling Hall a “nice old gentleman,” Hall says, “Old is true enough, and she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart, but ‘nice’ and ‘gentleman’ put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises.”
Yes, there is a note of bitterness, as in several other incidents of being unconsciously ignored or put down that Hall relates. It’s the sharpness of his voice here – a contrast to the poetic sensibility that pervades the rest of his piece – that reached out and grabbed me and made me realize, yes, this slicing, grating, isolating sense of otherness is what ageism feels like.
As reporters, be aware of this potential for treading on feelings when you speak to older people. Don’t patronize, don’t be condescending. Try to understand their experiences from their point of view, not your own. Learn about what their lives are like by listening with respect and attentiveness. And watch out for ageism in the institutions and professionals you cover and in the words that you write.