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Let’s Be Gero-Guerrillas for Change

We should adopt a militant approach toward abolishing ageism and its three insidious forms: discrimination, neglect, and abuse.


Recently Dr. Bill Thomas has reevaluated his role as a change maker for the long-term-care industry. I commend him on his ambitious goal to Distrupt Ageism using his “aggressive, pro-active” approach, which he calls The Way of the Tiger. I think he’s really onto something with his no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy position. It serves society well, not just in regard to nursing homes, assisted living centers, and other institutional settings, but in any aspect of life that affects older adults.

In other words, every aspect of life.

I would like to see all of us embrace a militant approach toward abolishing ageism and its three insidious forms: discrimination, neglect, and abuse. It’s time for older adults to take back territory that has been lost (or maybe never even completely claimed). We elders should boldly assert our rights to dignity, autonomy, and access, not only for ourselves, but on behalf of all the generations that will eventually follow us into elderhood.

In short, I’d like to see us become gero-guerrillas for change.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not proposing any behavior that is violent or even civilly disobedient. After all, our battle shouldn’t be with other generations or even with getting older, a natural part of life. The enemy we gero-guerrillas must fight isn’t aging but ageism. The question is: How can we best do this?

The answer lies in taking advantage of two strengths that typical guerrilla fighters possess: 1) They intimately know the battlefield terrain, and 2) they rely on the element of surprise.

As many older adults know, the topography of aging is a challenging one to navigate on a daily basis. Often we are confronted with age bias in our workplaces, architectural and design inadequacies in our buildings and streets, subtle discrimination in our public policies, and abuse and neglect in our living situations. Younger generations can merely speculate about these struggles, but we know them intimately. And because of this, we are at an advantage since we have already experienced what it is like to be a child, teen, young adult, and middle-ager. We occupy a wider vantage point and can see a larger panorama of the lifespan and our place –– and everyone else’s –– in that landscape.

From our elevated strategic positions of social marginalization and invisibility we can fight ageism using the element of surprise. We should consider the tactic of unpredictably inserting –– and asserting –– ourselves in public situations in which no one expects us to appear. How? I have a couple of ideas.

  • Attend a public government meeting as a group. Find out when a particular issue relating to older adults is on the agenda of your local city council or county commission meeting and, along with your elder friends and neighbors, make your presence known. To show your representatives that you are organized and willing to engage in debate, you might consider designing and wearing the same color T-shirt to identify your group. It can be an especially effective visual image for any media covering the meeting, too. Who knows? A reporter might come up to you afterward and ask you to weigh in on the issues.

  • Boldly go where few elders have gone before. Do you think that karaoke and improvisational comedy clubs, flash mobs, and poetry slams are just for “the younger set”? Or a particular coffee shop, pub, yoga class, or hiking/biking group isn’t geared for someone your age? Think again. You might be pleasantly surprised if you showed up and actively participated along with the twenty- through forty-somethings that are there…and they might be pleasantly surprised, too! After all, we older adults may need to ask ourselves if we are enabling ageist attitudes and expectations by deliberately avoiding social situations in which we believe we don’t belong or have a right to enjoy.

  • Admit it’s time for a “Million-Elder March.” How inspiring would it be to see a mega-multitude of older adults and their multi-generational supporters march along Washington D.C.’s National Mall and up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial? Fifty-two years ago, it was the site of an incredibly historic Civil Rights event. The Mall has long been the venue for marches and protests supporting different causes –– why not a rally to abolish ageism?

Being a gero-guerrilla for change is something everyone, not just older adults, should embrace. We elders can lead the way, though, because we have special “street cred” owing to our experience in dealing with the ongoing and totally unnecessary ravages of ridicule and prejudice.

We would do well to enlist in the cause right now. For before long, if things don’t change, the war against ageism may draft us all.


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