Ageism is Everywhere

Rocking Chairs at Historic Poole Forge

I recently took a continuing education course through the Functional Aging Institute (through which I have a Functional Aging Specialization) about Ageism. What was most compelling about the presentation was the ways in which it showed ageism at work in subtle and not so subtle ways in our society and in the fitness industry. I have chosen a career as a Personal Trainer working specifically with older adults; my business is called At Home Senior Fitness. Even so, I learned a lot about the topic and am more aware now of the language I use, the way that I communicate non-verbally, and even some of my own attitudes toward older adults.

Several years ago, I read the book Growing Bolder by Marc Middleton; it was suggested to me by an instructor from FAI and it has really shaped the way that I view aging in general–and my own aging process in particular. Middleton argues that our culture glorifies youth (not a surprise) and that media, the arts, and business promote an image of the elderly as frail, unsophisticated, confused, and with little to offer. Older adults in our society are damaged goods. This is not true in other parts of the world where older adults are venerated. I do not know if I expect veneration, but it is better than what we offer seniors currently.

Middleton asks us to rethink the structures that promote this reality. He challenges us to consider our own aging process in a more positive and creative way. I will admit that I do fight the aging process every day: working out, under eye cream, etc., but I think much more optimistically about the process now. I find jokes about older adults being forgetful or falling apart to be less funny. Instead I think about all the possibilities ahead and the ways I can use the wisdom gained over the last 50+ years. I also think about the amazing older adults who showed the world just how valuable they could be: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Keith Richards!!!

Imagine my dismay when I opened a magazine recently (a freebie that gets delivered to my home every other month) and saw what I believe to be a very ageist approach in an article about Older Americans Month. Here is the quote:

“This year’s theme is Communities of Strength, recognizing the important role older adults play in fostering the connection and engagement that build strong, resilient communities. Strength is built and shown not only by bold acts, but also small ones of day-to-day life — a conversation shared with a friend, working in the garden, trying a new recipe, or taking time for a cup of tea on a busy day.  And when we share these activities with others, even virtually or by telling about the experience later, we help them build resilience too.”

While this is all true, it presents an image of older adults as incapable of building strong and resilient communities through activism, volunteering, holding public office, participating in (or leading) a fitness class, etc. None of the “bold” acts are enumerated–only the “day-to-day” ones. Why is the emphasis on trying a new recipe or tending the garden? Methinks ageism is at work here. If this kind of content appears in a magazine article aimed at older adults, discussing a special project promoted by an organization that serves older adults, something is seriously wrong.

Maybe next year, I will put myself out there and demonstrate some of those “bold acts” that we older adults are engaged in. In the meantime, today alone I have two fitness classes to teach, clients to train, and a graduating college senior to counsel on a possible career choice. I may just miss that cup of tea….

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