Susan Kohler Commentary: “Ageism”

Good evening. I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services; the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli counties. Tonight I want to talk about a serious barrier facing those of us in our pre-retirement years as we look at new ways of engaging later in life. That barrier is ageism.
Ken Dychtwald, a gerontologist, psychologist, author, entrepreneur and public speaker states that we stand poised at the edge of history, experiencing a longevity revolution unlike anything the world has ever encountered. But with this “age wave” come some unexpected and disturbing impacts. One such example is that last year the Standard & Poor’s, S&P, downgraded America’s credit rating, causing an unimaginable loss of money, security and confidence. On the surface this may seem unrelated to our nation’s aging population, a decision based exclusively on the size of our national debt and the unnerving political gridlock in Washington. But look a little closer, and you’ll see that this decision was also based in large part on S&P’s biased belief that older adults are a huge financial burden and bring nothing positive to the world.
In October 2010, S&P released a report entitled “Global Aging 2010: An Irreversible Truth.” The very first page of this report states: “No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances, and policymaking as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.” If you read the entire analysis, you’ll learn that S&P has determined that older people are a burden on society, a weight… and the more of them there are, the more likely that a country will fail.
Wow, I’m part of this age wave and, like Dycktwald, I believe that Ageism can be as misguided and damaging as racism and sexism. “It’s obvious that our nation remains somewhat obsessed with youth,” Dycktwald says. “Considering the fact that older adults control most of the country’s wealth, very few of them can be seen in popular advertising that doesn’t have to do with either impotence or incontinence. The entertainment media continues to emphasize a distorted picture of the glory of youth and the irrelevance of maturity (did you know that if you’re over 28 you can’t even apply to be a contestant on American Idol?). And if you’re an unemployed older worker, it can take more than twice as long to secure a job compared to your younger competition.” He goes on to say, “ It’s pretty obvious to me that gerontophobia (the fear of aging and discomfort with the elderly) — and ageism (a set of beliefs used to justify age-based prejudice) still permeate every facet of our culture.”
But it wasn’t always this way. Dycktwald cites Colonial times as an example of when our elders were revered for their wisdom and experience. In those days longevity was so highly valued that both men and women often exaggerated their age. People actually tried to appear older than they really were by hiding their natural hair beneath powdered wigs, thus enhancing the illusion of age. Out of respect, older men and women were given the best seats in town meetings and in the churches. Our “Senate” was even named based on the root word “senex,” which means “wise old man” or “sage.”
It will be long, tough road to change this gerontophobia unless, as a country, we find a way to reverse age discrimination. Most of us in the Baby Boomer generation realize we will have to work longer in order to financially survive our own longevity. But what supports exist to help us do that? If you Google “older workers” you will see article headings like; “15 tips for fighting age discrimination” or “Beware! Don’t let your resume date you.” Not exactly comforting titles, are they?
Think about the S&P’s perspective and how we, as a society, can work to overcome this discrimination so that older adults can feel valued, pursue dreams through second and third careers, and contribute to the success of our country. Age discrimination will only contribute to unnecessary age wars standing in the way of all generations coming together to solve our national problems. No generation should be labeled or blamed for the downturn of our country.
In the next several months, Missoula Aging Services will unveil a new brand identity which reflects our organization’s values in serving older adults. We’ve adopted the new tag line, “We’re Proud of our Years.” It is our belief that is what aging should be–not only proud but a contributing force in our country’s success.

Susan Kohler is the CEO of Missoula Aging Services.


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