Facing — DEFEATING — ageism
Among the countless things that anger (stun, depress, disgust, worry) me these days is institutionalized ageism. Yes, I said ageism. Not racism, sexism, homophobia. Well, of course racism, sexism, homophobia. But those -isms and –phobias are at least part of our national conversation. We have created policies around them. They are discussed in schools, in the media, on the lecture circuit. I am not saying we have conquered these forms of discrimination, just that we are aware of them and sometimes do the right thing. Although now less than before.
And then there’s ageism.
It is not just firmly embedded in our culture, it is mostly invisible — thanks to the imposed and self-imposed ghetttoization of the elderly (from nursing homes to retirement “communities”). And accepted virtually without question. Old people? Hell, yeah. They are frail, useless, boring, sexless. The street signs show us what we think: A silhouette of a stooped (oh that dowager’s hump) old lady grasping a cane. She can hardly place one foot ahead of another. Watch her struggle as she totters, oh-so-slowly, across the street.
Presumably we all have a soft spot in our hearts for our old people – grandpa, great aunt Tillie, old cousin Bill – but we lose patience with everyone else’s. The grandma at the grocery store. She’s looking through her cavernous handbag for coupons. She’s taking forever to count out the change from her purse. She’s holding up the line. Come on. The geezer in the car, the one whose gray head you can barely see above the top of the driver’s seat. He’s driving 22 in a 35 mph zone. He’s actually making a full stop at the stop sign and looking both ways before proceeding. Get off the road.
And maybe even, sometimes, we lose it with our own kin. Grandpa (Dad) pulls out the old photo album. Again. He launches into the story about…fill in the blank. Again. We roll our eyes and find the first excuse to leave the room.
Old and in the way.
I am about to go to my weekly volunteer stint at Food for Lane County’s Dining Room where we feed (restaurant-style not soup-kitchen style) 300 or so people every day. For some this will be the only meal they eat all day. Although there are a few younger volunteers, most who work these shifts are retirement-age and some are decades past retirement age. This place, like so many other volunteer-staffed social service agencies, could not exist without OLDER PEOPLE giving their time and energy.
Yes, I said ENERGY.
The Dining Room shift is two hours of constant movement. A number of us wait tables, taking (and remembering) orders, bringing plates of food balanced up our forearms, and glasses of milk and mugs of coffee on laden trays. One volunteer constantly circulates with a big dessert tray. Another constantly circulates bussing and cleaning tables. In the back, people are scrapping huge pots and pans, chopping bushels of apples, working the steamy dish pit. This is not easy work. I clock two miles on a shift and often work up a sweat.
My co-workers – many in their 70s, some in their 80s and at least one in his 90s – work just as hard.
Because, my friends: This is what OLD really looks like.
I want to replace the image of the “don’t hit this frail old lady” street signs with empowering images of the older people in our midst. I want our heads, individually and societally, to be brimming with images of vibrant, engaged older people, funny, feisty, perceptive, talented, passionate, compassionate older people. Older people who not only have experience but still seek it. I want to be that kind of older person.
The photo is of a 3000-year-old olive tree (in Crete). Which is doing just fine. And bears olives every year.