Scholars on Aging Series: How the way people react to
and treat us teaches us that we’re old
Many odd, disconcerting thoughts surface during your sixties. It’s a
time, I believe, when we start “learning to be old,” which happens to be
the top-level title of an excellent academic paper I read recently,
“Learning to be Old: How Qualitative Research Contributes to Our
Understanding of Ageism,” by Deborah K. van den Hoonaard, from the
Gerontology Department at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick,
As the title suggests, her paper had two parts. Part I was about
qualitative vs quantitative research, and Part II was about ageism.
In Part I, she claims that quantitative data-rich research is overly
imposed on sound qualitative research practices. “The idea that we can
find one right, objective interpretation of our data is a mirage,” she
writes. Focusing on big data research with large numbers of survey
subjects drifting in and out of research settings eliminates a qualitative
researcher’s ability to achieve intimate familiarity with the people being
studied, resulting in a lack of discovery and understanding.
That frame of thinking set the stage for Part II, where she used her 25
years of sociological research observations to provide an overview, and
numerous qualitative- and individual-oriented examples, of “how the
way people react to and treat us teaches us that we are old.”
For example: “It’s your birthday and people say, ‘how old are you, 29?’”
Or, on another level, she writes that:
The way that we organize society and the social meaning of
aging have an undeniable impact on the way we experience
aging. This meaning is perpetuated by myths of aging:
People either feel lost in retirement or are so busy that
they don’t know how they ever had time to work.
They face higher risk of criminal victimization.
Most live in institutions.
They cannot learn. As an example, many misunderstand
and, therefore mispronounce, Alzheimer’s disease as “Old
Older workers are less productive in their occupations. Old
people are asexual.
The old are either extremely poor or “greedy geezers.”
All this wrongful thinking about older adults creates a negative disaster
when we should be celebrating the positive aspects of longer life spans
in the twenty-first century. She is perplexed by this kind of thinking and
questions why old people are seen in such a negative light when, in fact,
they “contribute much to our society in terms of experience, help to
their families, volunteering, and even paying taxes.”
Moreover, just like any younger human being, older people are not all
the same, so why do we see older adults as old first and everyday
people second? We may be old by number, but we are more importantly
individuals with a wide variety of diverse experiences and attributes like
anyone else. When we are slotted into an older adult first, society has
given us what she refers to as a “master status” that tends to wipe out
any other status older adults may have developed in their lives.
We see this starkly when someone is diagnosed with
Alzheimer’s disease. Often, everything that had mattered
about that person evaporates, leaving only the diagnosis to
account for whatever the person does or thinks. Only highly
prominent people seem to be able to avoid the master status
of being old and then only for so long. The master status of
being old reflects ageism that is premised on the idea that old
people are essentially all alike. In fact, older persons are very
diverse, and those over 85 are notable for their heterogeneity
and wide range of experience.
This pejorative “master status” has hit me hard in recent months, as I
try to parlay a 30-year career as a relatively successful freelance writer
and editor into a decent job that can supplement my social security
income. As a freelancer, I am very accustomed to rejection from
publishers, but my master status seems to have created a situation in
which I am completely ignored by companies who see my old age first
before my experience. All this, of course, is just another way of saying
that ageism exists.
So, what have I learned from all this?
I’ve learned that to accept the negative old age stereotypes is a grave
mistake. Despite the more frequent disappointments I’ve been
experiencing, I know who I am and what I can offer, more than any
other time in my life. I feel it’s only a matter of time before things get
better, as long as I don’t give up and continue to think positively about
myself and my skills. That’s what I learned about growing old, which can
also be identified as the key to any success in life, no matter how old
And if I go down instead of up, at least I’ll be able to say to myself that it
wasn’t my fault, which is a whole other conversation.
Thanks for stopping by,
“A society of all
ages is one that
does not caricature
older persons as
- Kofi Annan
from “Learning to be Old”
paper) referenced below)