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…..

liga contra el cancer

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.

6 thoughts on “Isms and Tough Love

  1. This is so redeeming for elders. However, please do not discount the very real need to be independent. Perhaps it is the most difficult challenge to encounter as we age


    1. I agree! Perhaps you are referring to my comment about the “myth of independence” so let me clarify. To me, the myth of independence is that we are never truly independent throughout our lives, whether that means socially, emotionally, physically, etc. At the same time, it is difficult for each of us to be dependent on others. A paradox!


      1. Also…(a delayed thought)…. I think perhaps the whole conversation around independence as we grow older needs to be reframed. We hear things like “taking away someone’s independence”, which is a terrible thing to think about if you are the one who is being taken! Could we maybe find better ways to have conversations about this and address it so that we can honor people’s autonomy and choices???


  2. sonya barsness, i love you!😄

    *In gratitude, *

    *Mel Coppola, Owner/President*

    *Enriching the Care Experience through* *Advocacy, Coaching and Education*


    *Certified in Gerontology* *Certified Eden Alternative Educator and Mentor* *Executive and Steering Committee Member of* * Florida Pioneer Network* *Immediate Past President, Better Living for Seniors, Pinellas* *Optimizing Well-Being Committee Member, Dementia Action Alliance*

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for discussing the “isms” so well!
    Agree that we need to think clearly about “independence”. As an older person, I am bothered by those who consider driving a right—and a requirement for “independence”. My bias is that we need excellent, repeated skill testing of older people for driving abilities—-and that we need to provide easy alternatives. Choices of alternatives to driving could promote feelings of mastery of one’s environment as well as the sense of autonomy.


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