It was May Sarton who wrote “The trouble is, old age is not interesting until one gets there. It’s a foreign country with an unknown language to the young and even to the middle-aged.” I came across the quote in this lovely blog post by Judy Fox, and it’s a metaphor that bears reflection. It reminds me of a reckoning I finally arrived at, long after losing my way in what was to become This Chair Rocks.
Blacks at the back of the bus. Women in the kitchen. Gays in the closet. For most of American history, until movements came along, that was “just the way things are.”
That’s still the way it is when it comes to getting older in America.
Aging is seen as failure. Discrimination is pervasive. Stereotypes—Old people are incompetent. Wrinkles are ugly. It’s sad to be old—go unchallenged. When we assimilate those beliefs over a lifetime, often unconsciously, we feel shame and embarrassment instead of taking pride in the accomplishment of aging. That’s internalized ageism.
Confronting ageism means replacing those ageist stereotypes and stories with more nuanced and accurate ones.
That won’t happen without a mass shift of consciousness.
That shift, like all social movements, begins within each of us.
Change yourself, change the world, as the saying goes. Or as Gandhi put it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world. I’m no Gandhi, and I catch myself being ageist all time—like just yesterday, when I wondered why we hadn’t invited more our-age friends to a party co-hosted by a younger friend. We can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it, and everyone’s biased some of the time.
That’s where consciousness-raising comes in, and why I’ve written a booklet called “Who Me, Ageist?” How To Start Your Own Consciousness-Raising Group. Consciousness-raising uses the power of personal experiences to unpack unconscious prejudices and to call for social change. Participants tell and compare their stories. In the process, they learn that “personal problems”—such as not being able to get a job, being patronized, or feeling sidelined—are actually widely shared political problems, and that feelings of inadequacy are actually a result of being discriminated against.By sharing truths, vulnerabilities, and experiences, participants become more aware of how they feel and what forces shape those feelings.
Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing—whether you want to change the world or simply to accept and embrace your own aging—this first step is yours to take, and this booklet is your tool. I hope you’ll download it, share it, change it, improve it, and add to it. I’ll keep updating the “Anti-Ageism Resources” page, and welcome suggestions for new entries, ground rules, and discussion-starters. It’s a collective work-in-progress.