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Am I an ageist?

My grandpa used to adore pecan pie, served with an extra large helping of vanilla ice cream. But now, at…

By Karen Moxley , in The Perfect Wrinkle: A commentary on society's fear of aging , on February 3, 2009 Tags: , ,

My grandpa used to adore pecan pie, served with an extra large helping of vanilla ice cream. But now, at 86-years-old, with a loose-fitting set of dentures and diabetes, my grandpa’s most exciting desserts consist of pureed mandarin oranges served with a sweaty dollop of whipped edible oil product at the Veteran’s Hospital where he lives.

Every time my dad and I go to visit my grandpa, I get really sad. I am at once filled with an intense love and sympathy for my poor old grandpa, but I am also overcome with a great fear of growing old.

Researchers at UBC have discovered that “anxiety about aging is linked to prejudice.” The prejudice they are referring to is ageism.

Allow me to simplify the findings of this study; young people are scared of old people…or rather, young people are afraid of turning into old people.

US gerontologist Robert N. Butler originally coined the term ‘ageism’ in 1969. Butler’s concept of ageism was broadly defined as “prejudicial attitudes towards old people, old age and the aging process.”

The UBC study, as published in the Calgary Herald, found that young people who live with the elderly are more likely to have ageist attitudes, and to have anxieties about aging themselves. Conversely, young people who work with, or have other regular interactions with able-minded and able-bodied seniors do not display ageist attitudes, and exhibit fewer fears of growing old.

I don’t live with my grandpa, but when I visit him I find myself contemplating my eventual old age, and praying I won’t be confined to a hospital in my final years. Am I an ageist?

It is hard to see the strong-minded, intelligent and opinionated grandpa I once knew reduced to a frail frame of grey skin and grey hair, complacently lulled into obedience by an onslaught of nursing home drugs. In seeing my grandpa, I fear the day when my own parents will enter old age, and further down the road, my own elderly fate.

Is there a cure for ageism against the elderly?

I think it is very important for young people to have positive and meaningful interactions with seniors. It is too bad that as a society we tend not to pay much attention to the elderly until they’re sick, or no longer independent. When this becomes our perceptions of the old-age norm, (the sick and the dependent), of course we get anxious about growing old. Seeing our aging and sick loved-ones becomes a terrifying glimpse into what could become our own futures.

But not all senior citizens are hunched over walkers and dependent on diapers. We should be inspired by seniors—the healthy and spry ones—and should take steps to ensure our bodies and minds will mimic these healthy elderly in the years ahead. And let’s not forget that even unhealthy, grey-skinned and grey-haired old people like my grandpa still have much to offer a younger generation. I can’t share a slice of pecan pie with my grandpa any more, but I love to share a story, and hear one of his in return.