Guest essay by Kirsten Jacobs, associate director of dementia and wellness education at LeadingAge
This past month I attended my 20-year high school reunion (go Generals!). I have come and gone a few times, but I now live in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Kombucha-loving though I may be, I often find myself longing for the Portland of yesteryear. A Portland that wasn’t overwhelmed by shiny condo buildings, traffic, staggering housing costs, and a seemingly endless supply of yoga studios. So there was comfort in walking into a room of blaring 90’s music and folks who knew Portland before it became Portlandia.
Admittedly, the music was blaring so loudly I could barely hear many of the responses of my classmates when we asked each other the obligatory questions. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the chance to connect with folks I hadn’t seen in many years.
But it was hard for me to ignore one theme that permeated the months leading up to the event and the actual gathering — negative stereotypes about aging.
Our class of ’97 Facebook group used to organize the event was splattered with comments like the following:
“I feel old.” “It’s almost been 20 years already … I still feel young though …“
“OMG … 20 years??!! We are ancient. I’ll be there … hopefully not in a walker.”
“Wait, 20 years???? Yep. I feel ooooold.”
Having spent all my post-college career in the aging services field and the last few years increasingly focused on anti-ageism work, it was hard to refrain from taking on the role of ageism police. While I often find myself gently raising awareness about ageism among friends and colleagues, reunion didn’t seem like an appropriate forum for those conversations. And yet, I’m left with a nagging reminder that ageism is everywhere and its negative effects are undeniable.
Research tells us that elders with positive perceptions of aging live 7.5 years longer than their counterparts with less positive perceptions.
I think it’s safe to say that my classmates’ comments, like “I feel old,” weren’t referencing their increased resilience or emotional maturity (changes that really do happen with age!). Instead their jokes reinforced the negative assumptions about aging that show up everywhere and lead to things like shorter lives, higher rates of disability, and so much more.
While this weekend’s reunion may not have felt like the right venue for me to raise consciousness (sometimes one needs to take a pause and just celebrate), it’s Monday morning and I’m back at it. I encourage you to join me in asking, “Where does ageism show up in my life and my work?”
To check out LeadingAge’s ageism resources, visit the website at www.leadingage.org/ageism.
* Kirsten is second from the right in the above photo, with her husband and friends.