Isms and Tough Love


So, we have taken a few days to relish family, friends, and turkeys. Hopefully, we have had some time to practice gratitude. And now it is time to get back to work. There is so much to be done.

A recent increased focus on sexual harassment has elevated a national conversation about sexism, and this got me thinking about “isms” in general. I’m not going to really talk about sexism here. But I think we can learn from the conversations and experiences we are having about sexism with another “ism” – ageism.

If we look at the conversations we are having about sexism, it seems like “we” as a society, are taking pause to self-reflect and consider why sexual harassment is so pervasive. What is causing people, particularly men, to treat women this way?

Like many things, when we dig deeper in sexism (which we should), it becomes something of a blame game (which it shouldn’t).


The conversation becomes one in which we blame “society”, or Hollywood, or laws, or how we raise boys, or little girls’ lack of empowerment, or magazines for how we view women. The truth is, it might be all of these things. And many more.  It is millions of shards from every level of our lives. We have to be mindful of all of these factors. Perhaps recognizing these things as “problems” is the first step.

But then we (hopefully) get beyond finger pointing, take the next steps, have the conversations, and we, meaning each one of us, consider how to take personal responsibility in our lives. So I then start to think about my own beliefs and actions regarding women. What messages am I sending? How do I be a strong female role model for the little girls in my life? How do I support the women in my life? What can I do to banish sexism?

How do we learn from this and address ageism?

Robert Butler, a gerontologist, defined ageism in this way:

“Ageism can be seen as a systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender……

I see ageism manifested in a wide range of phenomena, on both individual and institutional levels—stereotypes and myths, outright disdain and dislike, simple subtle avoidance of contact, and discriminatory practices in housing, employment, and services of all kinds (Butler, 1989; Butler, 2005).”


When we talk about ageism, we so often hear in this conversation that our society does not value older people. And this is true.

In fact, we could come up with lists of the ways we see ageism in our society. On television, in magazines, in greeting cards, in healthcare, in the mall…..

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And, the reasons why. Like….

A culture in which we celebrate youth. A fear of dependence and the myth of independence. A disdain and fear of aging.

We could go on forever.

Ahem. So here is the tough love part.

Tough love is defined as being strict discipline or imposing specific obligations or requirements on a person to mandate responsibility because you care for that individual.

Although it is true that society does not value older people, we are society. So, what part do each of us play in ageism?


Let’s be honest with ourselves. I will. I have been driving behind an older person, who was driving slower, and said in my head something like, “I can’t believe that older person is on the road.”


I have met an older person, and looked at this person in front of me as simply an older person, not seeing that this person holds a PhD and ran an esteemed academic department for 40 years.

I have sat with an older person and thought she did not have something to say because she was deep in her experience of dementia (yet, she had profound things to communicate with words, actions, and her eyes).

I have made assumptions that my 70-year old assistant would not be able to learn how to use Microsoft Outlook (which she did).

Are these things so terrible? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it is important to recognize that although society, or media, or ageist birthday jokes constructed this paradigm, and even continue to validate it, it was me that did these things. Maybe society does not value elders, but how am I valuing and not valuing elders? Because I am a part of society.

Last year I listened to a podcast in which Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, was interviewed. Yes, I am interjecting another “ism” that we can learn from – racism. In talking about mass incarceration, racism, and prison reform, she said the only way we will reform the prison system is when we realize we are all criminals. What does she mean? Well, each one of us has broken or will break a rule. To take it a step further, many or most of us have broken a law. Did you drink before you were of legal drinking age? Have you ever parked illegally? Have you ever driven over the speed limit? I think her point is that it is not “those people” who are criminals. They are us, and we are them. And when it is us, it is different. Maybe we are more likely to take responsibility for that “ism?

So, are we all ageist? (You were probably wondering how I am going to tie this back to older people, weren’t you?) The paradox is that we might all be ageist, but we are also all elders. Yes. We are older people and they are us. This is important because when we realize this, we might be less likely to treat them differently, because they are us. It also then makes us more likely to take personal responsibility for how we view and treat elders, because it IS personal – they are us.


I am a nearly 44 year old gerontologist. I am an elder. I am “society”. In the spirit of tough love, I am part of the problem. And I am also part of the solution, seizing the opportunities every day to look deeply and honestly at myself, and be the change.

Maybe we all need some tough love. But let’s not just be tough with ourselves. Let’s challenge the stories we are told about growing older, every day, the stories that dismiss who older people are as individuals, and why they are important. Even when those stories seem benign. Let’s not be afraid to ask questions about whether the services and supports we are developing for an “aging society” truly reflect what is important to people as they grow older, and are developed with their voices. Let’s be tough, but do it with love. Love for each other, as members of society, who are all elders.

Let’s tackle ageism with tough love. We can do so much better.

Gate Keepers

Let’s say that I live in what I consider a close knit community. I know most of my neighbors. We have porches, and we sit on them often, and visit with each other. We don’t have garages, so we see each other every time we go into or out of our car. We make an active effort to meet our neighbors. When a person moves in, you go up to their door and say hello.


But there are these other neighbors that I would like to get to know. And I have not been able to connect with them. They live in a building down the street. They don’t have porches, or cars. In fact, they don’t really go outside much. They have a courtyard but I rarely see people sitting out there. It is also protected by a very high fence. If I go inside the building, I am stopped by a person at the front desk who asks me if she can help me.

“I would like to visit with some of the people who live here,” I say. “They are my neighbors.”

“Well, you can’t just go up to their doors,” she says. “We don’t even know you!”

“Well, they don’t know me either. But I would like to meet them.  I don’t want to intrude on them.  But I don’t know where else I can meet with them. Where might I see them in the neighborhood?”

“Oh, they don’t go outside much,” she says with a strange look.

“That’s too bad. Could I invite them to a meeting? Maybe a neighborhood meeting?”

“Oh, I don’t know. They couldn’t go alone, and I don’t think we can find people to go with them.”

“Well, can you let some of them know that I would like to meet them?”

“Well, okay.” she says hesitantly. “Do you mean like be a volunteer?”

“Well, maybe. Does that mean I could visit them?”

“I guess so… if you pass a background check.”

“Hey, I have an idea. Do you think the people who manage this place would be open to hosting a get-together so that I could come and bring some of my friends to meet the people who live here?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I would have to check to make sure that would be okay. I am not sure we are allowed to have people here who are not family or volunteers.”

“What if I sent an invite myself to the people who live here to ask if I can come and visit?”

“That doesn’t really happen. I mean, they don’t even know you. How do we know you are not an ax murderer?” She looks at me as if I am an axe murderer.

This fun little fake-not fake discourse is my way of bringing up a really strange phenomenon about people living in nursing homes (as well as assisted living and other care residences), and the people who live outside the walls of these residences – their neighbors.

In normal life, I can go to my neighbor’s house or apartment and meet them. I see them outside and we become friends. But if your neighbor is in a nursing home, this is not the way this works. Because people in nursing homes are seldom outside, and even more seldom, out and about in the greater community, it is very difficult to make direct connections with them. It is like they are not there. Yet, they are.

This is a very abnormal situation. We are neighbors. Why are they different than any other neighbor? Why would I not want to know them?

If I want to just meet a neighbor, and that neighbor happens to live in a nursing home, it is extremely difficult for me to develop a relationship with that person without first developing a relationship with the nursing home. There is a gate between people in nursing homes and the greater community.  And the people who work in nursing homes, inadvertently, or maybe advertently, serve as gatekeepers.


What this means is that the gatekeepers control the access of people who live in nursing homes to the outside community, and vice versa. There is even a term for this – “institutional permeability”. Yuck. Sounds terrible, like we should be talking about something in a petri dish. But it refers to how well an “institution”, such as a nursing home, is integrated with the larger community. Institutions have gatekeepers. And we don’t want nursing homes to be institutions.

Certainly, there are good reasons why we might “monitor” who has interactions with “vulnerable” people living in nursing homes. Maybe bad people would try to take advantage of them. It is also their home, so we don’t want unknown people walking in, milling up and down the hallways without being invited.

Yet. The abnormality of this just strikes me.

It’s not that it is not possible for a person to visit someone in a nursing home, or that someone in a nursing home cannot participate in their surrounding neighborhood. It is that it does not generally happen. Especially in any natural kind of way. Everyone has to go through the gatekeepers.

I’m not really talking about the schoolchildren who come in to nursing homes to sing, or the outings that people living in nursing homes make, maybe in groups, for fun things, or to go to doctor’s appointments. I’m talking about the simple, rich interaction between neighbors that is prohibited by this reality that we cannot easily access each other.

Certainly, I understand that there currently are not hordes of people trying to go into nursing homes and meet the people who live there. But maybe this is because they don’t see them as their neighbors.

So what can we do about this? First, we have to believe this is important (I do). Then, maybe we, as neighbors, can find ways to meet our neighbors in nursing homes, to include them in our neighborhoods. Maybe we, as gatekeepers, can examine this role, and see what we can do differently. Maybe we can be gate openers? Or, can we just get rid of the gate?