We had a wintry mix last week, and as I put on my boots, I thought, “I don’t want to fall.” “You sound old,” I said to myself. And then I thought, “Why does not wanting to fall make me old? I think it makes me smart.”
Risk-taking is highest in adolescents and tends to decrease as we age. Is that because older adults are more fearful, or because they are more experienced? Being cautious and prudent should make me wise, so why did I see it as “being old?” Because I am ageist.
The term “ageism” was coined in 1969 by physician/gerontologist Robert Neil Butler, who was the first Director of the National Institute on Aging. Butler defined “ageism” as:
1) Prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the aging process,
2) Discriminatory practices toward older people, and
3) Institutional practices and policies that perpetuate negative stereotypes about older adults.
Unlike more obvious forms of stereotyping, such as racism and sexism, ageist stereotypes are seldom corrected, so individuals grow up believing them, even as they themselves become older. Ageism is so commonplace in today’s society that we don’t even realize the stereotypes implicit in many things we say and feel.
All of this sounds theoretical, but in fact, it’s quite personal. Studies show that older adults who equate aging with becoming useless, helpless and devalued, die earlier, are less likely to seek preventive medical care, and are more likely to suffer memory loss and poor physical functioning.
When stereotypes are positive, however, when older adults view aging as a time of wisdom, self-realization and satisfaction, the opposite is true. In fact, people with positive age stereotypes live 7.5 years longer than those with negative stereotypes. That is a bigger benefit than not smoking!
So what does this mean for me? If I want to thrive as I age, I’ll need to be mindful of negative stereotypes in my thoughts, feelings and views on aging. I’ll need to change the paradigm. My boots are a good start. Being cautious about falling is not being old, it’s being wise.