Ageism Ignores And Insults The Competence Of Adults

(Aris Sfakianakis/Unsplash)
(Aris Sfakianakis/Unsplash)

Familiar though I have long been with an array of ageisms that include unrelenting Congressional attempts to unravel the safety nets of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, I’ve been hearing personal stories that shock and upset me.

They report everything from real violence to casual insults. The latter are what are sometimes called microaggressions, but they are not to be ignored, nor the deep feelings they provoke.

My friend Ella, a respected professional, is a gorgeous woman with beautifully coiffed, white hair. She’s able to hold her own in supercharged political discussions and keep a dinner table spellbound. She related her story:

I had my first ageist assault yesterday. I was in a convenience store paying with a credit card on a machine. I hesitated, thinking about whether I wanted to get cash, and this young punk thrust his arm across my face, aiming his finger at the no button. “Just say no,” he said. I had to physically push his arm away to keep him from taking over the machine. He said, “That’s what I do for my grandmother.” His arm, within millimeters of my face, was a physical assault and his assumption that he knew what was best for me was even more enraging. All I wanted to say was “F--- you,” so I said nothing. The anger was intense.

Do I have to say Ella is 70, or did you guess her age? If she had been a younger woman, I don't think he would have interfered with her deliberation in that crude way. (Meeting cute is something else.) If she had been a man of Ella's age, the younger man might not have noticed any hesitation. Or he might have hesitated: after all, a man Ella’s age, accosted in such a way, might react forcefully.

I call know-it-alls like Ella’s punk, “Young Judges.” They have internalized our culture’s widespread ageism, as I report in my latest book, "Ending Ageism, or How Not To Shoot Old People."

The Young Judges have absorbed too much of the magnificent, imaginary power conferred on them by the Western world’s cult of youth and masculine domination. Young women can be ageist, no doubt, but I can’t imagine a young woman being so rude, pushy, and when pushed away, so blatantly and inexcusably self-justifying.

At book talks recently, I’ve been retelling Ella’s story and asking audience members what they would do or say in her place. People warm to her. They imagine themselves on the scene, and burst out with their own reactions in solidarity.

There are always a lot of answers. I don’t comment; I just pass the microphone from one person to the next. The first person to answer at one recent event was a man.  He said he'd respond with, "I'm sorry I am holding you up, but I can do this myself.”    

The rest of the responses below are from women and men.

“I feel sorry for your grandmother.”

"What's your hurry?"

"Mind your own business, sonny."

"Leave me alone."

“How would you like to be treated in this situation?”

“Have you ever asked your grandmother how she feels when you act like that to her?”

“What did you say?” (This can be asked in several different tones of voice, from hard-of-hearing to menacing.)

“I often ask a person, ‘Can you say that to me again, please?’ That can cause a jolt of awareness.”

“Look up what ‘ageism’ means!”

I’ve provided an array of possible responses here. Some will prefer the Response Mild. Others the Quip Modest. Or the Reply Churlish. The Reproof Valiant. The Counter-Check Quarrelsome, or the Retort Aggressive

My friend, the experienced professional who is never at a loss for words, was nonplussed, outraged even. And yet she was silent. Silenced.

I think we need to be forewarned against similar occasions. We don’t want to be suffused with rage and spend time later meditating on what we might have said, getting angrier and feeling more helpless all the time.

Age-shaming is destructive of our shared humanity.

Ageist attacks often come out of the blue, like the big arm pointing at the tiny screen and the voice yelling, “Just press no.” This is legally an assault. Is there any other category of person — a young man, a younger woman, a person of color, a person in a wheelchair, me 10 years ago — who would be treated this way?

Older adults, who have been treated for decades with ordinary courtesy in public spaces, don’t expect being treated normally to suddenly end when we arrive at a certain age. The unexpected disregard of our adult competence comes as a shock. It’s more than lack of respect for our white hair -- it’s the assumption that we are stupidly at a loss. If this is termed a microaggression, we must not lose sight of how much harm it can do. Age-shaming is destructive of our shared humanity.

Most of us know we will be old. We are prepared for many varieties of elderhood, which, like gray hair and wrinkles, mostly creep up on us slowly. We don’t need to fear such forms of aging. Even creaks and aches we shall deal with, competently, resiliently, on our own.

But ageism: Expect ageism. Detest ageism. Fear ageism. Speak out against it. And invent your own way to declare #MeTooAgainstAgeism.


Headshot of Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Margaret Morganroth Gullette Cognoscenti contributor
Margaret Morganroth Gullette's forthcoming book is "American Eldercide" and she is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.



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