Warning: Ageism Is Bad for Our Health

Dec 1, 2022

Sometime in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the great Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote:

“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!”

A rough and wordy modern paraphrase of that famous line, at least for the purposes of this blog, might read like this: “Oh, what a gift it would be if some power could enable us to see ourselves in the same way that other people do.”

That age-old wisdom might still be right on target today. Or…it might not. In fact, it is more likely a double-edged sword. And whether it is a gift or not – that is, something positive –seems to depend on our age. Why do I say that? Because being seen as “old” is not necessarily a benefit, that is something to be cherished these days. Surely there are lots of folks out there who might honestly ask: “What do you mean it is not a benefit? What about all the ‘senior discounts’ and other benefits and special advantages afforded to people over 60 or 65 in this country?”

In the spirit of full disclosure I’ll admit that, being well over the minimum age to take advantage of those benefits, I sometimes do just that. Yet don’t worry. I am not going to respond by declaring that, after all, I have earned them, because frankly I have not. But at the same time I do want to offer this bit of perspective. Being offered a financial discount by using a bonus card for, say, groceries on a certain day of the week is a great deal different from – and certainly in no way even near compensation for – being discounted or diminished by society because of age.

What do I mean by that and why am I saying it? Let me just recall one recent and, I believe, unfortunate but instructive and extraordinarily public example of what can certainly be viewed as age bias. When President Biden, at age 78 the oldest person to serve as American President, fell off his bicycle recently, the “incident” became a national, and likely international, news story even though he sustained no injury. In my opinion all the attention given it was nothing more than an unnecessary embarrassment or perhaps even a very public example of age bias.

To further the point, it is honestly hard to imagine that an equal amount of attention would have been focused on that minor mishap had it been President Clinton at 46 or Obama at 47 who did the same thing. And let’s not overlook the fact that literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of children fall off their bikes each and every day, many sustaining serious injuries. On a strictly personal note, I can’t count the number of times my younger brother had to be “stitched up” for the injuries he sustained from falling off his bike. If there were any story at all worthy of national and international attention related to President Biden’s minor mishap perhaps it should have been more appropriately focused on applauding him for his resilience and his public example of the importance of physical exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle at every age.

If I seem to be rambling a bit here, I am sure that you will excuse me; after all, it is just something we old people do. Oops, there goes that ageism creeping again. But I am not rambling. I am hoping that this touch of sarcasm might help to make a serious and deliberate point. It is far too easy to fall (no pun intended) into world’s trap and to tacitly accept what I believe ageism to be — nothing more than imagination, and a dangerous and destructive construct of imagination tinged with prejudice at that.

What? Really? Yes. The way that older individuals are frequently portrayed by the media and by advertisers when their hair turns white and their joints need replacement (full disclosure: I have personally experienced both) is deleterious not only to those individuals but also to our corporate and national health.

What’s the cure? It’s pretty simple and it begins with full acceptance of the hackneyed but true aphorism that is worth repeating: “Age is just a number.”  This nation and this world will be better off when we start acting like we believe that. It is the only way to combat ageism and in doing so to fully embrace and live out the promise enshrined in the revered words of the of the Pledge of Allegiance…“to the nation for which it stands,” and to each and every individual, regardless of age, who together embody it.

To paraphrase Burns’ ideal in a vernacular we should all understand and embrace,  O would some Power enable us to fully grasp that gift.

–Peggy Ingraham

Please watch this powerful story about ageism from CBS Sunday Morning:

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