As we age, it seems that we become socially irrelevant –– and that’s a big mistake.
How do people become invisible or ignorable in plain sight? .... The eye of power simply flits by too fast to register the powerless …. Powerlessness makes oppressed groups invisible. Ageism –– as a kind of superiority complex –– makes the old appear unworthy of attention when they obtrude.
–– Margaret Morganroth Gullette
The moment when many of us older adults first experience social invisibility varies. Mine hit me --- and I mean literally -- in my 50s, when a pair of decades-younger people in conversation walking down a crowded sidewalk didn't make room for an approaching me and bumped into either side of my body before I could dodge them. And although I said "Excuse me," I wasn't taken aback so much by the physical contact as I was by their lack of any recognition and apology as they continued past me.
Why do such startling encounters happen? What causes those of us who look or act old in others' estimation to be devalued and thus ignored, marginalized, and neglected?
Before I offer any answers, I should point out that age-based invisibility isn't experienced only by old people. Children, teens, and any others who aren't considered economically and/or socially contributing members of society --- in other words, the "powerless" --- are often overlooked when decisions are made and conditions are set that affect their lives.
So again, why does this old-age invisibility happen? I think the answer lies in the general cultural fears of scarcity, loss, and death. Believing that we share with others resources that are limited and might become scarce, or that at any moment we might lose our health and/or wealth and be rendered vulnerable or nonexistent --- these are the emotional triggers that set up the "us vs. them" paradigm that many of us embrace. Of course, the "us" are ourselves, no matter how old we are; the "them" are those people we "otherize" in order to distance ourselves from them mentally and even physically.
So who are the "them" that fit this profile? In general, three types of people are most likely to become invisible as they age.
First are those who are already physically isolated and are therefore literally out of sight, such as elders in nursing homes and memory-care centers, and those living at home who are unable to venture out for whatever reason.
As I mentioned above, the second type are older people who are otherwise marginalized in our culture by the powerful and enfranchised. I'm referring to women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color, people with disabilities, those who are poor or work at low-paying jobs, and the homeless. Unfortunately, the invisibility resulting from ageism is usually compounded by the invisibility resulting from the other forms of discrimination: sexism, racism, ableism, classism, homophobia.
The third type are older adults who are internally ageist and feel that with later age comes either the desire or the obligation to remove themselves from actively engaging with others. They may not know how to advocate for their dignity and autonomy or don’t feel worthy of doing so because they have trouble imagining how they enrich others’ lives just by being who they are. And in clinging to these beliefs, they render themselves powerless.
But the blame for the source of elder invisibility must ultimately rest on the widespread conscious or unconscious ageism perpetrated by our culture as a whole. Whether or not we become invisible as we age depends on who’s doing the looking and what their attitudes are regarding getting older.
I'm basically talking about two types of ageists.
One group is afflicted with self-serving, or egoistic, ageism. They fear growing older, and so they consider us a repulsive population whom they must keep at a distance from themselves by seeing us as irrelevant.
Egoistic ageists tend not to pay attention to older adults because they tell themselves, “I'm not like old people --- and never will be. They don’t have anything in common with me because they are useless to society and a drain on it.” And so we elders are ignored by store clerks and restaurant wait staff, have doors shut in our faces as we approach entrances, and are ignored in group conversations of mixed ages in the workplace as well as socially.
The other group of ageists also dread getting old, but they manifest their fear by embracing an altruistic, or compassionate, ageism that views elders as pathetic and needy and who must be served and protected by the obviously hale, competent, and strong. Paradoxically and sadly, some of these people actually work in the health and social services sectors and should know better: health-care providers who "baby-talk" to elders or who, during medical appointments, speak with an older patient’s accompanying adult-child caregiver rather than directly to the patient; and long-term-care community administrators who find it more efficient to manage their residents as an amorphous group with identical preferences rather than as the widely-varied individuals they are.
Compassionate ageists may or may not identify older adults as models of their own future selves; nevertheless, they also don’t “see” elders as more complete individuals who yes, have needs (don’t we all, at any age?) but also have the potential to contribute to, be productive in, or otherwise engage with society.
Whether older adults are subjected to discrimination by egoistic or compassionate ageists, the results are the same: a malignant stereotyping that leads to rejection that leads to denied opportunities to be complete individuals, which is the birthright of us all.
And here's the paradox --- and the irony --- of it all: When people refuse to "see" old people, they are actually erasing their own reflection in the mirror of time. They are dooming themselves in coming years to the same debilitating social treatment by others.
That's the future consequence. But here's the current one: By not recognizing and accepting older adults' immense potential to contribute to society because of the acquired skills, knowledge, and experience that only grow over time, ageists are harming all of us, no matter our place in the lifespan. Ageists not only render old people powerless, they are depleting society itself of the power to increase in civility, equity, and economic abundance.
So what can older adults do to regain their power and make this invisibility vanish?
In When "Older" Means "Invisible" --- Part 2, I'll suggest some strategies that answer this question.