"You shouldn't have to be doing that at your age." Why this is offensive, among other comments made to those my age and older
The comment came, not with malice, but with the best of intentions. An advisor of mine said this when I explained to her that my company had gone belly up and with it, likely, my ability to keep my house. At the time it was devastating, as big failures like those are. While that has of course diminished with time and distance, still, the comment was revealing.
At almost seventy, I am increasingly sensitive to and aware of such comments. "At your age," when added to any observation, is that unrelentingly ugly qualifier which implies that at my age I simply can't handle this shit any more.
I beg to differ. I dunno who better, at my age or ten years later, than I am-or you for that matter- to manage my own massive failures, having managed a lifetime of them so far, and fully expecting a few more to come my way. Including death, but that's not a failure so much as a punched ticket for the very long ride Mama Nature provided.
At my age, in fact, I am one hell of a lot better than most to head straight into the hurricane and figure shit out. That said, I am well aware that insult was not intended, nor taken. But I did most certainly hear the ageism.
I am hardly alone. It's a thing.
Not all of us are doing this, to be fair, however. Most of that is due to attitude and the decision to walk straight into what ails us or our attitudes. Given that, the more we either insult ourselves with ageism or hear others do the honor, the harder it is to maintain a positive can-do attitude as the body begins to bark at us, as it inevitably does.
The language you and I employ to describe ourselves and others is immensely powerful. I wrote a book about this very thing, called Wordfood. I am constantly reminded of how much our choice of verbiage affects our well-being or lack thereof, and most certainly can do damage or uplift others.
To that here is a worthy piece of research:
Infantilization is a behavioral pattern in which a person of authority (social workers, medical personnel, etc.) interacts with, responds to, or treats an elderly person as if he or she were a child. Using secondary baby talk when speaking to elders may be the most common form of infantilizing behavior. Secondary baby talk is a patronizing type of speech in which the speaker uses an exaggerated intonation, a higher pitched voice, and a child-like vocabulary while speaking slowly and loudly (Hockey & James, 1993; Whitbourne et al., 1995; Wood & Ryan, 1991).
While that research was conducted in institutions, it is a widespread, ingrained and monumentally irritating behavior which conveys condescension and superiority. In other words, long, long LONG before you and I are institutionalized, should we ever be, others have already placed us in such an institution with their attitudes.
It is hardly limited to us older folks. This article underscores the point about people's need to feel superior but speaks to what happens when those people are parents:
The way I see it, we're burdened enough already, given the changes that we face with a body that simply must respond to the aging process as Nature intended. To that, then:
When I arrived in Kenya last night, I checked some photos my operator's guide took of me with the two dogs at Researcher's Rest. WHAT HAPPENED TO MY FACE???
In that way that, as we age, we carry very specific ideas of how we appear. I was reminded of a very dear long-time friend's reaction to his own photo as he approached eighty. "Who IS that skinny old man," he thought. Then guffawed.
The last three years have been rough on us all, and my face shows that stress, even as I grin for the camera while petting two happy puppers. But it also shows a life well-lived and chock-full of adventures.
That cognitive dissonance, which I know many of us feel as we age, is part of growing up, not just growing older. Whatever you and I might miss about a younger and more attractive-to-society self, it isn't a crime against society. It's a crime to judge it a crime. It's hard enough to age without getting angry at ourselves about it.
The woman who made the comment is quite lovely, but I flat out disagree with her comment. Perhaps a kinder comment is that life should be simpler.
I don't mind simpler at all. If anything, being forced to rethink my entire existence at the cusp of my seventieth anniversary is a fine thing. Saga Supporter Nalini McNabb emailed me that she's been on the move for years, which I am now pondering, which absolutely requires that I pare down to minimal existence. I did that for four years in my early thirties. I am facing potentially doing it again.
Frankly, while there is some real work ahead to get that done, I am vastly better prepared for it this time around forty years later.
I should be doing this at my age. Damn right.
Infantilizing language is insulting. It creates considerable mental health issues. Research has shown that Azlheimer's patients react violently to such language, hearing both the condescending tone and the implied meaning of such a tone. Even those who struggle with memory still know damned good and well when people are disrespecting them.
There are of course plenty of folks who use age as an excuse, milk it for all they're worth, play the pity party and all the rest. Not this article.
People often live up to our very low expectations, which is where the problem lies.
So you can imagine my reaction when someone who is an advisor of mine leaks that because I am almost seventy, having my world collapse is just too much. That implies to me that she thinks I am incapable of handling the shit life throws at me.
Okay, look. Truth is, that when your world suddenly collapses that can feel like too much at any age, any time. But that's just life.
The main attraction, center stage, is life. Life is full of crap for so many of us right now. It's still just life. You get on with it.
But I will NOT say Woe is me, this shouldn't happen because of my age, this time of life. It should be smooth sailing.
The ability to focus on what has to be done often comes from having had to do this over and over and OVER again in life. Those are precious, powerful life skills. They don't diminish as we age unless we give up and let others baby us. That is a costly choice. For if, as happens these days, kids are as sick as or sicker than their aging parents, they are themselves in too much trouble or pain to be of any use.
You and I, as we age, don't need condescension. Nothing makes the hair on the nape of my neck bristle so much as someone's calling me sweetie or honey because they think my advanced age renders me an infant.
I'm not fond of saying should, but I will here, because this is a quality of life issue.
You and I should expect to do better as we age. We should expect to work harder and use the skills we spent a lifetime earning. We should expect that life still throws us curveballs, and as a result, we know how to hit them out of the park.
We most certainly should be able to do that a helluva lot better at seventy and eighty than we did at twenty.
If anything, like an aging quarterback, we can get better because we aren't only depending on youthful energy to get by. Now we're using smarts, deep knowledge of the game and a whole lot of craft to get the wins. Brady, Manning, name your aging QB, they get better as they age. Brady has taken that to a whole other level, as has Serena Williams in tennis.
You and I might develop disabilities, I sure have them. But barring mental disability, and despite all claims to the contrary I ain't there yet, our brains likely operate better than ever. We get wily. Aging athletes know their weak spots and limitations, and there is endless research proving that while some faculties fade, others more than make up for them.
That's why Robert Griffin III, who didn't know his limitations, isn't playing football any more, and Brady is. Isn't he? Who knows. Still, Brady.
You and I carry ageism, the same way we carry racism and all the other -isms which lurk in our deep consciousness because the culture is steeped in it. It's nearly impossible to side-step them, for we are bombarded with such messaging from birth. We can, however, when such thoughts arise, challenging them like a game of Whack-a-Mole.
Our quality of life- and that of those around us-depends on it.
Saga supporter Chris Custer does this regularly. One of the reasons I admire him is that he takes himself to task for opinions and ideas he realizes are dysfunctional, unkind or outdated. This is hard, deep, personal work, and sometimes it's no fun.
Much of what we think has been planted there by parents, preachers, pundits, politicians, and constant societal messaging. It sells. Otherwise we wouldn't get such manipulative messaging.
I want to challenge how we flail at ourselves for the unforgivable crime of getting old.
Jim Stutsman and his wife have been married 53 years this year. He mentions every so often that he feels fortunate that his wife has forgiven him his various trespasses over the years (we should all be so fortunate). Jim, as with many people with long marriages, still sees the girl he fell in love with years ago. No amount of wrinkling changes the spirit which draws us in, when that love is honest and true.
My father, in the marriage my mother often characterized as an "armed truce," told me once that my mother's body "didn't interest him any more," in that monumentally unkind way that we dismiss those we marry for falling victim to time. By that time my mother's once too-skinny body had put on weight, developed cellulite, and her face had wrinkled. So had his, but you couldn't point that out to Dad.
Shame on her, I guess, for giving him two children and living long enough to have a body which showed it. Her brain was sharp and she was funny as hell right up until the night she died.
My mother, faced with this withering judgment every single day, also withered. She hated her body and aging face. Until.
Dad died in his early eighties. Not long afterwards I flew my mother out to California to visit a long-term family friend. When he opened the door for us, my mother fell butt-over-teakettle in love.
What followed was a brief but intense affair (at least for my mother), sex in her eighties for the first time in three decades, and the realization that she, at that advanced age, could still be considered attractive and desirable.
Watching this brilliant and funny woman turn into a teenager again was something else. I do believe that this late-in-life gift was a massive boost to her self-confidence.
You and I deserve such love as well. First and foremost that starts with us. I make fun of my face every morning before the teeth go in, but it's good-humored. I have work to do to return to pre-Covid level fitness. However, the changes that age and adventure have wrought on this face are proof positive of a life well-lived, not a crime punishable by shunning or shaming, most particularly by yours truly.
The older we get, depending on how we have chosen to live, the more competent we can also get. For my part, wrinkles and sagging and bagging, as my friend Maggie Kruger said once so beautifully, are the "love letters our body sends us as we get older." That sweet and kind thought is the tone poem for us as we wend our way towards the next Big Adventure.
The body, however, is not US. It's just a skin suit.
Our ability not only to find gracious ways to navigate the aging body is nowhere near as important, however, as our expectation that our minds and our ability to deal with life's vicissitudes are better than ever. They are. However, if we buy into the adage "I'm too old for this shit" then, we are.
What you say it is is the way it is for you and me.
Words have substance, power and energy. Let's use them wisely. Now I have pushups to do, a breakfast to devour and giraffes to feed. Life is full of adventure, at any age.