Own Your Age — And Resist Ageism

This post is adapted from remarks that AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins delivered on the opening day of the Life@50+ national event and expo in Miami.

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AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins speaks at Life@50+.

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? Just think about that for a moment. It’s an intriguing question.

How does your age affect the way you behave, what you do and what you don’t do? How often do we give in to society’s – or the media’s – idea of what “old” is?

What if we could lose our preoccupation with age—just put it out of our minds? What if – instead of being preoccupied with aging – we focused more on living? Would we behave any differently? Would we treat other people any differently? Would we be happier and enjoy life more?

AARP has joined with six other prominent aging organizations* to produce a report that found the life people aspire to as they age – self-sufficient, active, participating in leisure activities and building closer relationships with family and friends – contrasts sharply with their understanding of aging as a process of deterioration, dependency, reduced potential, digital incompetence and family members living at a distance.

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The report concluded that “these deep and negative shared understandings make the process of aging something to be dreaded and fought against, rather than embraced as a process that brings new opportunities and challenges for individuals and society.”

We have to change this. We have to “disrupt aging”! The first step is to “own your age.” I’m not talking about just accepting your age. I mean really own it: embrace it, feel good about where you are in life, and more importantly, about where you are going.

People turning 50 today have half of their adult lives ahead of them. They don’t want to be defined by how old they are – they want to be valued for who they are. They don’t want to live in fear that their possibilities become more limited as they age. They believe their life experience has value. They still want to make a difference in the world.

Yet our perceptions – as individuals and collectively as a society – are simply out of sync with the new reality of aging. The negative stereotypes of aging are so ingrained in our psyches, they are difficult to overcome. Most of us don’t even try. We either just accept the old stereotypes and live out the negative image of aging – or, we just deny that we are aging and fight it with every fiber of our being, and in some cases, with every dollar in our bank account.

We not only live in an aging society, we live in an “ageist” society. Today it is socially unacceptable to ignore, ridicule or stereotype someone based on their gender, race or sexual orientation. So why is it still acceptable to do this to people based on their age? Perhaps the bigger question is, why does this matter? It matters primarily for two reasons:

First, ageism – and the negative perception of aging it perpetuates ­– creates a negative reality of aging. And, as long as that exists, we will never face up to the changes we need to make to adapt to our aging society.

Second, it’s bad enough that ageism can influence public policy, employment practices and how people are treated in society, but what’s worse is that we accept the ageist behavior ourselves and start acting it out.

It isn’t age that holds us back. In fact, age may not be a barrier at all.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer offers another perspective on this in her book Counter Clockwise. She notes that if an older person has difficulty getting in and out of a car, we often attribute it to the weakening of leg muscles and the loss of a sense of balance rather than considering the inadequacies of a car seat that doesn’t swivel and allow the passenger to emerge straight ahead rather than sideways.

Yet, we would consider it ridiculous to conclude that a 25-year-old’s difficulty in riding a tricycle is due to an enlargement of her limbs and a loss of flexibility. Simply put: tricycles were not made with 25-year-olds in mind, and car seats were not made with 75-year-olds in mind.

The point is that every day, older people are forced to navigate an environment that was designed neither by them nor for them. We often blame our limitations on the fact that we’re getting older. But in reality, it may simply be that our environment doesn’t fit us anymore, or the product isn’t designed to fit our needs.

Once we muster the courage to admit that and do something about it – like adapting the car seat to meet the needs of the 75-year-old instead of blaming the person – we can begin to develop creative solutions that benefit people of all ages.

That’s disrupting aging. That’s what happens when we own our age.

* The report was jointly produced by AARP, The American Society on Aging, The American Federation for Aging Research, The American Geriatric Society, The Gerontological Society of America, The National Council on Aging and The National Hispanic Council on Aging.

Josh Ritchie/AP Images for AARP

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