Have you ever been the target of age discrimination or heard comments that made unfounded presumptions about individuals because of their age? I recently read an Internet article, published in the online version of The San Francisco Chronicle, in which the reporter raised concern over US Senator Dianne Feinstein’s running for another term. Feinstein is one of the oldest US Senators. She is a very vibrant and sharp 84 in anyone’s observation. But the writer gave three reasons that would contraindicate Feinstein seeking reelection; although to some readers—like me—it may have seemed there was only one:
The article cites:
- Health concerns, given Feinstein had recently been the recipient of a pacemaker;
- Being “out of step” with the Democratic party, reasoning that she has been “slow to criticize Trump”, and
- Age, which was “perhaps the most pressing issue”, according to the writer, because you can never predict how well the Senator might be functioning toward the end of a potential next term, when of course she would be even OLDER.
Let’s start by ignoring the fact that the pacemaker was a voluntary procedure for Feinstein (which actually would improve—not worsen– her heart’s functioning), and the fact she took almost no time off after the procedure; a testament to her resilience.
Let’s also ignore the preponderance of research that shows men generally age faster (biologically) and die younger than women.
And what exactly does “out of step” with her party mean? I heard one commentator on the radio this morning saying that the “old” politicians such as Feinstein should step aside to let some “younger blood” in. Maybe that person should look up the definition of ageism.
I don’t know about you, but I always thought we should vote on the basis of a candidate’s platform and political record. Not on the basis of whether (s)he is young or old (male or female, gay or straight, black or white, etc.).
But no pass for Feinstein. Instead, a statewide survey asking voters if the Senator should run for a 5th term. 48% said YES. Then afterwards her age was revealed to participants. Now only 38% felt she should run. Leading the witness anyone?
Of Feinstein’s age, the reporter fears it is hard to predict how she will function toward the end of a new term should she win; given that she will be in her early 90’s, even if functioning very well now.
True Story: My very strong, active, and seemingly super healthy husband woke up one day when he was 57 and dropped dead 2 hours later when we were about to go grocery shopping. So much for predictability in the basis of age.
Furthermore, we might wonder if the writer has earned a PhD in Gerontology for coming to the following conclusion “Few people work stressful hours at that age because the body and mind can perform only so well at that point in life.”
True Story: My father is almost 98, is still physically very active, and so mentally sharp that he can still out- calculate me in mental math, despite my having taught statistics.
You might say, well the above two examples are atypical, and a sample of 1 does not a sample make. Well you would be right. But that is my point. No one is typical. That is why stereotypes are unfair.
If voters are concerned about a candidate’s body or mind not being up to par, there are cognitive tests and physical exams that we may want to require of ALL of our political leaders, regardless of birth year. Some people show signs of dementia in their 50’s; some have heart attacks in their 30’s. Let’s not assume that advanced age makes a person incapable of doing their job, or that they no longer have anything meaningful to contribute to society.
I am not singling out politics, either. Ageism happens in every field, and outside of the professional world, too. I have been witness to ageist slurs that seem to roll off of people’s tongues, just the way “mafia” slurs flow way too easily from people’s mouths when referring to Italians. In academia, for instance, it was not uncommon to hear students remark that this or that professor “should retire now”, just because they are passed a certain age. When a worker reaches the age of 60 questions like “When do you plan to retire?” seem to come flying out of walls. It is difficult to find a novel where the protagonists are past the age of 35. If you are an actor, you know how few roles are written for the over-50 crowd. And how many of you “over 50”s have had certain goals and dreams thwarted—not because of lack of ability or hard work—but because you are no longer young?
Ageism, like any “ism”, is about making sweeping judgments that don’t necessarily correspond to reality. Unlike some of the more vocal political movements that have sprung up over the past few years; no one in the public eye that I know of has started an anti-age discrimination movement that points fingers and brings law suits. Yet we all know it exists in every sector.
The truth is: Everyone ages differently. Some of us die early, some of us are able to keep age-related diseases at bay longer; some of us suffer from dementia younger—some older—and some not at all.
But lest you begin to feel too confident or giddy over having lived to whatever age you currently are, the writer leaves us with this sobering thought to reflect on: “Aging is a reality that is never pleasant but a reality nonetheless.”
Am I angry over this article? To the contrary; I am actually grateful for the writer’s questioning whether Feinstein should retire because of her age. In doing so, he unintentionally brings to light an ugly reality that goes far beyond the reelection of a single Senator, to make us aware of the ever-lurking undercurrent of ageism that runs through our society—with no strong champions willing to stand up for older adults.
That is why it is up to you and me to take action when we witness (or are the target of) ageism. We do that not only by writing to our lawmakers, but also by making the speaker or perpetrator of ageism aware of their biased statement or actions; pointing out that such attitudes are not innocuous; and that age bias and discrimination deprives all of society of the productivity and wisdom of older adults.
Let’s start a conversation. What is your story?
Should Sen. Dianne Feinstein retire? By Larry N. Gerston, San Francisco Chronicle April 29, 2017
Blagoslonny, M (2010) Why men age faster but reproduce longer than women: mTOR and evolutionary perspectives Aging May(2)5.
© Raeleen Mautner, LLC