Aging is a foregone conclusion. Like it or not, it happens to us all. Perhaps, that’s why it’s so curious that we attach such shame to growing older. After recently experiencing a milestone birthday (I turned 50), I couldn’t help but struggle with all the mixed messaging we’ve all received on the topic of aging. What really got me thinking was when my partner asked if I’d mind if he mentioned my age on Facebook as part of a celebratory birthday wish. I’m embarrassed to admit, I gave it a second and a third thought. How would it affect my future career prospects? Would people think differently about me? Would I somehow be considered less relevant? The fact that these thoughts immediately popped into my head reveals how prevalent ageism is in our culture.
Ageism and Shame
I can’t say aging and shame weren’t already on my mind. A week or two before I had been working on a travel story about seniors, and I struggled with how to approach the topic. First, I didn’t want to offend anyone by suggesting they were a senior even when they obviously were. I also didn’t feel all that comfortable asking sources to reveal their ages. While I didn’t think they should feel any shame on the subject, I still felt uncomfortable asking, as I didn’t want anyone to feel as if they were being put on the spot.
A few years prior I had made the mistake of innocently mentioning a good friend’s age to a younger friend. I was hosting a casual dinner with some girlfriends, and the context was that growing older was nothing to despair. I believe I may have pointed to my 50-plus friend as a fabulous example that age is just a number. The next day, however, I learned of my faux-pas when I got a call from my friend truly upset that I had revealed her age to our 20-something friend. It was my first glimpse at the shame associated with aging, and with each year I grow older, I feel it more intensely myself.
It’s really no surprise we’re conditioned to dread aging when you consider the terminology we use to describe it. One of the worst offenders is the word, anti-aging, for obvious reasons. “I’m not a fan of the word ‘anti-aging’ and wish skincare companies would pledge to stop using it,” says Nancy Griffin, host of the podcast, Glowing Older. “What it really means is anti-living. The more we as women and men make peace with our age and own our full identities, the happier we will be. Treating age as something that needs curing is pointlessly demoralizing.”
In 2017, Allure magazine actually banned the term, anti-aging, in an effort to stop the shaming and instead recognize the beauty of growing older. In June 2020, That Age Old Question, a report published by the Royal Society for Public Health, examined attitudes on how aging affects health and wellbeing. It found that ageist views are held across generations and called for a number of reforms, such as ending the use of “anti-aging” in the cosmetics and beauty industries and including age as a protected characteristic in Facebook’s community standards on hate speech.
According to Griffin, language is important when talking about aging. Negative messaging comes in many forms, including statements like, fight your wrinkles and correct your crow’s feet. “I earned those facial lifelines and don’t need to feel ashamed,” says Griffin. “Women are judged far more harshly than men for looking old, and the costs of not conforming are much higher. I’m not saying there is anything inherently wrong with getting your hair colored or investing in any beauty or cosmetic procedure, it’s about reclaiming our own agency versus feeling forced to take actions because we’ve been made to feel ‘less than’ by society.”
Misconceptions About Aging
Aside from language, the way society views growing older is also problematic. In an inspiring TED Talk, Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, shares revealing insights that often contradict what we think to be true. For instance, people are happiest at the beginning and end of their lives, as proven by the happiness U-curve theory. Another eye opener: dementia rates are dropping. Applewhite attributes this disconnect we have between fact and fiction with ageism. According to her, ageism comes into play whenever someone assumes we’re too old for something based merely on our age rather than finding out who we are or what we’re capable of doing.
According to Griffin, “warehousing” an individual based on their age is one of the worst types of discrimination. “We put our horses out to pasture to frolic in fields when they retire, and we lock our humans in boxes so they can stare at the walls,” she says. “If my horses were denied access to nature and physical and mental stimulation, they would quickly develop behavioral issues and disease states. People will decline when denied the opportunity to move their bodies, stretch their minds, and find purpose.”
The pandemic exposed the problems associated with senior living facilities, and many are working to transform the options available. “New models of senior living won’t be called senior living at all,” says Griffin, noting the greatest objection is to the idea of living with a bunch of old people. She believes this sentiment will grow stronger as Boomers find their voice in retirement. It’s just one of the reasons non-age-segregated models are growing. “Senior living built around colleges is huge,” says Griffin.
As we rethink what aging means and how we approach it, we can start to reclaim this chapter of life that has been so maligned. Fortunately, we can all work to end ageism and the stigma that surrounds growing older. In her blog, Applewhite suggests a host of options, such as confronting the unconscious bias we all have and recognizing the messages we all absorb about aging. Says Griffin, “People are vastly different 55 to 95 years of age, and age is a poor indicator of behavior, attitude, fitness level, state of health—pretty much everything.”