Daily Encounters with Ageism

Readers who reach a certain age and stage of life are familiar with the negatives of ageism. Older people are stereotyped — to a greater or lesser degree — as frail, helpless, irrelevant, troublesome, invisible, or demanding.

Ageism is part of Western culture.  It is often unintentional. Once someone is no longer in his or her prime in terms of appearance, vitality, and earning capacity, negative stereotyping begins. A state of decline is assumed.

Ageism happens when an older woman is addressed as ‘honey’ or ‘dear’ or ‘cutie’ or, worst of all, ‘young lady’. If an older person doesn’t appear to understand something, there’s often a change of tone to a higher decibel or, if a hearing deficit is assumed, instructions are repeated with increased volume. When waiting for service, an older person is often ignored in favour of a younger client/consumer.  Finally, there are audible sighs of impatience when someone fumbles for keys, glasses, money or, if someone takes a moment to think before entering a PIN number when using a credit card.

Experiences of Ageism

It’s painful to experience ageism. Sometimes it’s in the form of invisibility — such as being ignored or dismissed.  Sometimes it’s disguised as a compliment such as “you look so good for your age”. Often it’s a patronizing comment that indicates a tolerance for perceived incapacity such as “I can help you with……”

It’s also painful to hear or watch ageism directed at someone else. My husband has mobility issues and walks with a cane. Watching him slowly move to ask for assistance in a store only to be met with a dismissive gesture or a flippant comment like “‘you’ll find it on the top shelf behind you”. Such a comment makes me wonder why someone doesn’t just reach over and help him retrieve the item he is requesting. Does this come from seeing him as old as he has grey hair or from seeing him as disabled as he walks unsteadily and uses a cane — or both? Occasionally someone holds a door or steps aside to allow him to enter a building only to have the person rush past him as soon as possible.

Often ageist comments come from a younger person who may offer a compliment for how healthy — or good you look. What is more distressing is that elders make such comments when addressing each other.

Ageist Encounters

Last week, I was aware of various ageist encounters.

  • Comments at my bridge club about forgetting conventions as ‘losing it’.  The comment came from a woman who is well over 70 and was directed at another person near to her age. Nervous laughter accompanied the delivery of these comments.
  • Annoyance at the grocery store checkout as an older man struggled to enter a pin number when using his credit card for a small purchase.  A frustrated customer waiting in the line behind him loudly suggested that he should pay cash instead of using a credit card if he couldn’t learn to use a pin number.
  • A late show tv host making derogatory comments about old people.  No big surprise as jeers about old people rank closely behind commentary about politics and politicians as favourite topics for late night television.
  • A young man thought he gave me a compliment at aquafit class when he told me that I kept the pace with the instructor better than the other old ladies in the class!
  • My hairdresser told me that not all women my age could get away with short haircuts such as I favour. Was this a genuine compliment or naive insensitivity?
  • At a birthday lunch, I watched a friend open several cards with negative jokes about growing older including jokes about needing diapers or forgetting to insert false teeth.  In my opinion, these cards were distasteful as well as ageist especially as the recipient is a classy woman.

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive as these are small slights.  Such comments happen — it’s the way of the world in which we live. Yet, each instance constitutes a failure to show respect or demonstrate basic courtesy. I appreciate when people regard me as a capable adult regardless of my age.

Sometimes I ignore ageism but sometimes I’m insulted and react.  I may ask, “what do you mean by commenting on my look?” If I’m in a snarling mood, I’ll object to being called ‘young lady’ by cheerfully telling the person my age and, in return, asking how young they are.

Too often, I ignore the comment as objecting makes me feel angry or invites a useless confrontation.

Ageism disempowers everyone.  It’s degrading and hurtful. Many people don’t recognize a casual remark or a joke as an ageist comment that perpetuates negative stereotyping.

Rudeness happens yet the bigotry associated with ageism is seldom challenged.

Thanks for reading my post.  I’m interested in hearing about ageist encounters that readers experience.  If you like my blog, please tell a friend about it.  If you want to receive new posts in your email, please consider becoming a subscriber.


8 Replies to “Daily Encounters with Ageism”

  1. I have generally always looked and acted younger than my real age. When I was young I wanted to look older. Now I want to look younger but I am reconciled to getting older looking.

    1. Like you, I don’t mind looking older as I’m happy with my age and my appearance. I’ve come to realize that many people are uncomfortable with ageing. Perhaps that is the underlying factor with the ageism we experience.

  2. Hi Jeanette, a colleague of mine who is not yet thirty started to tease me about my age. As much as I love being teased and frequently engage in friendly banter with coworkers, age jokes in my mind are cheap. It gets ‘old’ real fast. So, I said to him, “You realize you are teasing me about something over which I have no control, the same as if I were to tease you about being brown, or perhaps your IQ?” That ended it.

    1. An excellent rebuttal to an insensitive comment!

  3. Interesting post, Jeanette. personally, I’m not aware of any such slights, or perhaps I’m not very sensitive. Recently I’ve had trouble with the land line telephone number, which I don’t use often anymore, and shop assistants have kindly waited patiently while I tried out the different combinations. It may also be a cultural habit; An English friend of long standing called me ‘dear’ or ‘my dear’ many years ago, while we were both very much younger. Also, my English born father-in-law often addressed people as ‘dear’.

    1. I agree that some of the terminologies used when addressing older people is a cultural habit. Having a friend call me ‘dear’ or ‘my dear’ never offends me. Somehow there’s a difference when a young person who I don’t know chooses to address me as ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie’. I also object to references to ‘senior moments’ when forgetting something. I do forget — but remembering certain facts, names, or trivial information was also a problem when I was truly a ‘young lady’.

  4. I absolutely agree with everything you said. I especially hate “young lady”, usually said by older men who think they are being funny. They’re not. I have earned my “elder” status and don’t want it denigrated. It’s too bad that the white European culture cannot learn from native people (whom they have marginalized and colonized) who revere elders and treat them with respect.

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      Indigenous culture honours elders in many interesting ways. Before retiring I was privileged to travel to several fly-in First Nations communities in northern Ontario. One evening, at a feast, I was surprised to be called to a buffet get food before others. Because of my white hair, I, too, was considered an elder at the gathering! It was an unexpected and dignified acknowledgement of age.
      You are correct in observing how much we can learn from other cultures!

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