“You have personality, Honey. That is so important in a woman!” -Mary R.
These words were repeated to me each day by a woman I once worked with, and for, in an assisted living community in North East Wisconsin. She was vibrant, she was honest, and she gave us a new way to look at aging. She was not 108 years old and still living strong, or a 90-year-old marathon runner. She also did not live as if life was over because she was “old.” She showed us what it meant to live well despite needing a wheelchair and living in an assisted living community. She found ways to love life, to bring joy to each moment. She found ways to give to others even if the gift she gave was only a smile and a “hello.” She proved to us that you don’t need to extraordinary to live well at an older age. Had her story been projected into mass media, our view of aging would have shifted towards the positive, if only by a few marker points.
For all of us, exists the ups and downs of life. We have moments when we ache or feel old. We have moments when life feels like it is bursting open for us. We have moments when life is just…well…life, with the mundane tasks and the exhaustion of our responsibilities. For those of us under a certain age, society is still on our side telling us we have our entire lives in front of us, or that we still have many great years to live. The world is telling us we still have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to have hope, and to live our lives. This allows us to combat the downturns and sadness, but what if we didn’t have that cheer team? How would we react if the world is saying to us directly or indirectly that, “Your best days are behind you” adding to our bad days, feelings of hopelessness? No wonder depression rates climb, people get “cranky,” and overall health is not all that it could be for the older population. The way our world reacts and interacts with the elders of our community should not be negative, but positive, allowing each person to flourish in ways that are right for them. Ageism clouds our relationships and our thinking.
Even with the upswing and support rallying behind this subject we still are stuck making little, if any, changes in our communities. We have dementia friendly communities, and advocates for dementia and aging who are easy to search and learn from, yet our media and our actions show no sign of this upswing. We praise the 90-year-old who just sold their first painting and the 100-year-old figure skater, but we tell the 93-year-old who is bound to a wheelchair in a skilled care community that they are a burden and don’t need to live any longer, or we make invisible the 89-year-old down the street and wonder why on earth they are still living at home. We think everyone over a certain age is no longer capable of living in anything but an assisted or skilled care community and that they all have dementia. We criticise the “old” then moments later share that viral social media post of a 98-year-old who still swims laps at the local pool. There is something between the youth and the extraordinary older adult, it is the in-between, who regardless of where they are living and what their chart looks like still desire to live a full and joyful life, seeking friendships and connection. We should work to help fulfill those desires.
All of us are guilty of ageism. It is not reserved for the elders of our society, and I, in fact, have fallen prey to it on the younger side more times than I can count but life is set up to have an easier time overcoming younger ageism.
I have been thinking a lot about this topic after I caught myself falling into its trap. I started to panic when I took some time to look at what I would like to accomplish personally and professionally in the coming year. I saw wasted time in my life because the checkpoints I wanted to hit in this past decade have gone all but almost untouched. I, for the first time, felt the pressure of my 20s and that time was running out. What does this say about my future if at 29 I felt the time was up? What about when I am 39 or 69 or 99? Do the years between now and then not account for anything? Can they not be filled with joy, accomplishments, family, friends, experiences, and even sadness? I jumped from being on the receiving end of, “You are too young and inexperienced” to “Holy crap life is over.” From the external comments to the internal thoughts that were put into place by our society and what they value. This was not what I truly believed about age and life. After I backed away from this dark hole, I felt funny for having actively fallen into an ageist mindset when I preach the importance of breaking down those harmful thoughts. But we are all human, and no one is immune to the effects our society’s persuasion. Therefore we must be kind, willing to support one another, and willing to seek to weed out those ageist thoughts and comments. Not all of us are called to create a commercially successful project that could change the view of aging in this country, but all of us can work internally, in our families, and in our communities by seeking connection with those of all ages, by listening and seeing each individual.
Mary shared with us what it can look like to be “average” in ability yet still light up the lives of others. She showed us through her fun jewelry, her love of colorful glasses, and her giving spirit what it means to age with grace, what it means to age well. She showed us we don’t need to be in a nightly newsreel or viral social media post to have value and still contribute to this life we are all living. In doing so those that worked with her never saw her age, what she could or could not do, they saw her smile, her eyes, they saw Mary. She helped move us closer toward internalizing a positive view of what it means to age. After all, we are all aging.