Ageism is a constant undercurrent in our society. Ageism is essentially defining a person, and making assumptions about them, entirely based on their age.
Yet, we cannot deny age. It is a part of a person. Age, which might simply be seen as the passage of time, does make a difference to a person. One might even say that it significantly impacts a person.
Hence, a paradox!
There are many paradoxes in aging.
The Covid-19 experience brings to the surface not just ageism, but these paradoxes about aging. It uncovers many of our tensions in how we see and think about older people. As they are exposed, it seems like a good time to pay attention to them. These paradoxes help us think about the paradigm of aging we want to promote, which is the antidote to ageism.
One of these tensions is in the idea of chronological age.
Chronological age, in itself, has limited meaning. It says that a person has lived a particular number of years. It does not define a person, and it certainly does not explain who an individual is.
On the other hand, chronological age does say something. It says that a person has lived X number of years. It says a person has life experience.
If you think of the meaning of chronological age throughout the life span, this holds true for any age. A teenager has lived a particular number of years. It does not define them. But it is an important part of who they are.
There is something particularly special about living for a long time. In fact, there is a lot of data that suggests that as a person ages (grows), they gain all sorts of things that are associated with lifelong growth. For example, the possibility of wisdom.
There is evidence that a person’s emotional well-being might improve with the passage of years. That through living, a person develops adaptive strategies and tools, develops meaningful relationships, does better at emotional regulation, etc.
Aging means something. The experience of growing older means something.
So, the first paradox is:
We cannot define an individual entirely based on his or her chronological age. We do not want to make assumptions about a person based on their age.
Age is a part of who a person is. Chronological age means something.
The Covid-19 experience has also caused us to consider older people as a group. And there is a tension here.
Are older people, as a group or stage of life, unique in some way? In other words, should/might people have their own ‘hood as they acquire life experience through years? As in elderhood? Older adulthood?
If this stage or group is special, do we need to have a level of reverence for individuals who belong to this group?
A clear downside of this is seeing a group of people as all the same, or making universal assumptions about individuals in a group because of their belonging to this group.
Another downside could be othering – thinking that older people are “them”. We would need to recognize that people in elderhood are “us”. Maybe just not yet.
Yet, there is potential to see older adulthood as important in our society. Something to be celebrated, just like we celebrate other life milestones such as adolescence.
Sometimes I hear suggestions that we should not associate older adulthood with being something unique at all. Some people do not want to consider themselves as being in older adulthood or elderhood. It is understandable, for many reasons. And, it worries me a little.
Are we saying that we should see older people as people at midlife who have just lived longer? Eternal midlifers? If older adulthood was not a thing, you could just stay in adulthood. But then there might be no reverence for growing older, because it would not be considered a special ‘hood.
What does it mean to think of older people as a group? As a status?
I think this tension in seeing older people as a group that is separate/not separate particularly arose when initial guidance on the virus was directed towards people 65+. There were concerns about this resulting in negative perceptions/treatment of older people as a group (because it had less focus on the individuals within this group). There were valid concerns about ageism and paternalism. While there was unfortunately talk of essentially “sacrificing” older people to the virus, I also heard a genuine concern for older members of our communities
When people were initially thinking this virus primarily affected older people, I heard younger people say things like, “I am doing my part so my mom/dad/grandparent is safe”. I heard stories of family members going out to the grocery store for all older members of their families, concerned that they should not be exposed.
There is something beautiful in this. Caring across generations. A reverence for elders.
The second paradox is:
People in older adulthood/elderhood should not necessarily be treated differently as a group – we cannot make blanket assumptions about them as a group, or treat them unilaterally because of their belonging to this status. Each person within this group is unique, and maybe we shouldn’t even see them as a group.
People who have achieved older adulthood/elderhood have achieved a special status that deserves reverence – they might be seen as belonging to, and having value as a group in our society. So, we might treat them differently?
A third tension that is being brought to the surface is our intense discomfort with vulnerability.
It might be useful to consider what is meant by vulnerability in gerontology. There is a “lack of consensus” in how vulnerability is defined but, in the context in which we are hearing it, it broadly means an increased risk for negative consequences.
So, it is not incorrect to say that there is vulnerability in growing older, based on this definition. It would be incorrect to say that every person has the same level of vulnerability. For example, in a two-week snapshot, 79% of deaths from Covid-19 were people 65+. By this definition, older people might be considered vulnerable. Yet, not all individuals 65+ are at higher risk, especially when compared to individuals of any age with serious health conditions. I do understand, from a public health perspective, why the guidance was given to particularly “protect” “vulnerable” people age 65+. I also understand the concern about public health decisions based entirely on age. This is an important conversation. And it made me curious about how we feel about vulnerability.
Growing older does not equal vulnerable or frail. Each person is unique. Every person has their own health “profile” and many older people are what we would consider physically healthy.
And, with aging comes increased risks for physical and cognitive challenges – vulnerabilities. There are people who are older who are ill. People who have various types of disabilities. This varies with many individual factors.
I get concerned when we try too hard to entirely separate physical or cognitive challenges from growing older. When we attempt to minimize the possibility of vulnerability, and even portray it as something “bad”, we risk portraying these individuals as “bad” – as not aging well like the rest of us! We might then send the message that there is really only one way in which we need to see older people, and that way is as healthy, vital people.
By portraying vulnerability as “bad aging”, we also make the possibility of illness and disability scarier.
We seem so uncomfortable with the idea that vulnerability is also a part of the experience of growing older that we sometimes go to the other extreme of overemphasizing vitality.
Why are these mutually exclusive? A person can both be ill and vital. A person can have dementia and be active. A person can be medically vulnerable, perhaps needing more of the support of others, AND be able/willing to give as well as receive. These are false categories.
I think if we dig underneath, and get to the root, we will see that we are just intensely uncomfortable with the idea of vulnerability.
We have been upset at being considered “vulnerable” when we are lumped into the 65+ guidance with Covid-19, regardless of our health status.
Now, I am not saying that it is not justified to be upset. There is a lot of putting people in boxes going on here.
But, WHY are we so upset about being considered vulnerable? Is that so wrong to be a person that is vulnerable?
Is it the label? What about the people who would be considered “vulnerable” – people with multiple health conditions, people living in nursing homes, etc.? If we are feeling uncomfortable about being called vulnerable, imagine how those might feel who are labeled “vulnerable”. I am sure it does not feel good.
I don’t know that the answer is to deny vulnerability. It might be to accept it. Not as a function of growing older, but as a part of the overall human experience.
So, the third paradox is:
We cannot equate aging with vulnerability – each person experiences health differently.
Vulnerability is a part of life, and with age comes an increased risk for negative health experiences and outcomes, at least in some aspects of health.
And then, I wonder.
I don’t think that our conversation about the experience of growing older should primarily be about what it isn’t, because that then leads us to define what growing older is. I don’t think we can define that for anybody. I worry that by focusing our conversations on what is not common or “normal” for most older people, we are still limiting what we think an older person “should be”. An older person can be ill, can be well, can have dementia, cannot have dementia, and yet this is not the essence of what growing older is.
I believe we need to promote a multi-dimensional view of the experience of growing older, which at its core means that each one of us is an individual, that as we go through life we grow, and this experience of growing older is never one thing, lest of which is age.
What all of these paradoxes point to is the truth- that each person is a unique individual throughout life, so this does not change with age. Perhaps we need to consider deeply what it does mean to grow older. Perhaps we can develop a comfort level that growing older is a part of life, perhaps a very special part of life, and maybe even something that we should honor. We might honor it not because a person is healthy or not healthy or wise or not wise but simply because it is this experience of the passage of time that is special and might result in us growing.
What would it look like to see a person as a multi-dimensional individual, and age is a part of this?
Can we reconcile the paradox that each individual is unique, at every age, and more than their age, and also honor that there is something special about the experience of growing older?