We older adults must be the vanguard that moves us out of the shadows and into the forefront of society.
It would be too easy to say that I feel invisible. Instead, I feel painfully visible, and entirely ignored.
― David Levithan
In Part 1, I discussed how and why our society marginalizes older adults, causing us to feel invisible and useless, as well as described the individual and collective damage that results from such discrimination. In this Part 2, I offer ways in which elders can disrupt this ageist injustice --- for the future benefit of all.
The widespread social disempowering of the old might lead us elders to think that none of us escapes feeling entirely invisible. But that's not true.
Ironically the people who don’t become invisible as they age are all of us –– to ourselves. We older adults are all too visible in our own eyes. We’re well aware of how the aging process is playing out on our bodies, our lifestyles, our relationships. We can be losing some physical or cognitive abilities; losing partners, family members, and friends; losing opportunities in the workplace, etc. But if we’re really paying attention, we’re also equally aware of the many experiences we've had, the knowledge we’ve accumulated, and hopefully, the greater wisdom we’re applying to our lives.
This awareness of our own value should inspire us to take charge of changing a society that's always slow to reform itself. After all, rarely, if ever, do the powerful voluntarily relinquish their power. Much of the responsibility of erasing our own invisibility lies with us.
So where do we start?
First of all, we older adults need to become less ageist ourselves. We should begin by examining our own perceptions about growing old, because being internally ageist might be causing our own invisibility due to the fact that we’ve bought into the idea of not being worthy to be valued by others. This lack of self-esteem is obvious when we tell ourselves we're too old to try something new, or shy away from attending gatherings at which we may be the only older person present.
When we let compassionate ageists do the things for us that we are quite capable of doing for ourselves, we succumb to something called “learned helplessness,” in which we give away much of our own power and agency to others. As a result, we get out of practice controlling our own lives, which includes asserting ourselves and being our own best advocates.
Second, we need to internalize a more realistic picture of aging as a process of gain as well as loss. We must realize that we're more than the limited beings we or others have assumed. We need to reject the cultural myth that says all older people can’t or won’t change. As I said, we have had decades of experience adjusting to the ways our bodies change from year to year. We've relocated to different places, taken on different jobs, and handled iterations of all forms of technology (cars, phones, planes, etc.). And sadly, we are also constantly adjusting to losing the people we love as they die. We are the Master Changers.
Moreover, our brains have actually acquired certain abilities that can develop only with time and experience, such as being able to come at problems from many perspectives, better regulate our emotions, accurately detect patterns, and store away many more pieces of learned information from which to draw and apply to new experiences.
Knowing all of this can boost our own confidence in being who we are and help us encourage people of all ages to not fear the aging process.
As we re-educate ourselves and get a real understanding of aging, we should also be asserting ourselves by entering more fully into public life. A great strategy is to look for work or volunteer for a cause that appeals to us and engages our skills. The individual brand of passion and competence we display can make us much-needed visible role models of creative, proactive aging.
An equally effective way is to engage with people of all ages. Forming intergenerational relationships is the best way all of us, regardless of age, can ensure a future that’s free from ageism. With all our diversity, we can be the realistic examples of elders who encourage younger people to eagerly anticipate growing old rather than to dread it.
Finally, whenever we’re with others, we must advocate for ourselves, calling out the ageist remarks and behaviors we encounter. No one can be as convincing about the need to eradicate discrimination as the people who are on the receiving end. We can do so calmly, seriously, with empathy --- and sometimes even with humor. We must be the vanguard that moves us out of the shadows and into the forefront of society. No one can do it as powerfully as we can.
I'm confident that the invisibility of older people will diminish because it’s coming out of the closet. As the media cover more stories on age discrimination, as more men and women push to remain in the job market or start their own businesses, as more older female actors decry gendered ageism, as more women are not only admitting their age but declaring it (not to mention turning down Botox and letting their hair go gray) –– all of these efforts are creating a turning point in self-advocacy. More and more of us are refusing to be pushed aside or ignored. We’re asserting ourselves. We're raising our hands and our voices.
And that's a sight to see, indeed.