Ageism and Its End

03/19/2015 06:09 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

Until I turned 66, retired, and officially joined the ranks of "the olds," I lived for decades as an unreflecting and unapologetic ageist. I'm not a mean-spirited person. I pride myself on being open-minded and progressive. I've always tried to guard against bias in my thoughts and actions, and to fight bigotry wherever it cast its sulphurous gloom. But somehow, my prejudices about old people seemed to be natural, to reflect the facts of life, to share in the universal consensus. Being old was simply bad, wasn't it? This felt like a solid fact, an incontrovertible position and, in the U.S. of A., also a basically uncontroversial one. In America -- youth-worshipping, plastic-surgery-tweaked America -- ageism stands as one of the last widely acceptable social prejudices.

Everyone, it seems, indulges in it, even the most conscientious among us. It's reflected in our workplaces, courts, laws, and public policies. In movies, on television shows, on the nightly news, and in pharmaceutical commercial after pharmaceutical commercial, we chuckle and grin to see seniors portrayed as cute, helpless, and feeble, stumbling through what's left of their lives in a fog of befuddlement. We've developed a whole vocabulary to express such prejudices: Uh oh, are you having a senior moment? Can you hear me? Where are your keys? Do they still allow you to drive? Maybe just in the slow lane, with one turn signal flashing for no reason? Well, be careful. Are you sure you can handle all this by yourself? Wow, you're so capable and independent. So youthful! How inspiring. I mean, for someone your age. But you know what they say, "eighty is the new forty." What are your plans for the time you have left? A little bingo? A few laps around the old mall? Or maybe you'll stay in, catch up on your programs? Wait! Did you remember to take your meds? Are you sure? Good for you.

The term "ageism" is an abstraction. It strains to capture a varied and complex phenomenon. As used here, ageism comprises systematic neglect, segregation, isolation, and bigotry. Like other prejudices, it works by constructing artificial barriers. On one side of the wall, older people languish, mistreated and misunderstood, viewed less as persons than as ready-made types. On the other side, younger people lose access to a vast store of wisdom and experience, and are tempted to adopt a false vision of life -- to live as if old age were something that only happened to other people. In this way, ageism acts like an environmental toxin. As it spreads, it imperils us all, old and young alike.

It is probably impossible to measure how much society loses by tolerating prejudice against the old. But for seniors, the consequences of ageism are troublingly apparent. First, it sets up a dangerous loop: Age discrimination tells seniors, Time has made you infirm, obsolete, and worthless. In response -- as is natural -- seniors feel pressure to accept and internalize this view of themselves, with disastrous consequences for their mental and physical health. Studies have correlated experiences of ageism with memory loss, cardiovascular sickness, and low self-esteem. Another reported that seniors who harbored negative views about old age faced life expectancies that were, on average, seven and a half years shorter than those of their peers. All of this is staggering when we consider how ubiquitous ageism is: In one study, 70 percent of seniors surveyed reported that they had been insulted or mistreated on the basis of their age.

Ageism, again like other forms of prejudice, is rooted in ignorance, lack of experience, and countless failures to exercise curiosity, imagination, and empathy. A couple of years ago, I began conducting research for a project about aging in America. One of the people I interviewed, a resident in an assisted-living facility for seniors, asked the facility to arrange to put me up in a spare room for a night. He thought that spending a full twenty-four hours there would help my research. I declined as politely and as firmly as I could. To be honest, the prospect made me deeply uncomfortable, as if old age were contagious -- as if I might lose 20 years in one night. I got over this eventually. But it made me realize that, for much of my life, I'd had relatively little exposure to the old. In this regard, I'm not alone. Our society has tacitly segregated ourselves on the basis of age. We are educated alongside people who share our birth year. We spend our working lives with people who are, in most cases, about our own age, or within a decade or two of it. When it comes time to retire -- and there's a socially acceptable age for that too -- many of us flee to sunny places, to be close to other retirees, lest we get caught lingering in the noisy world of the whippersnappers. Consider: If you are young, do you have a friend or acquaintance outside your family who is over 70? If you are old, who do you know under 30?

Life teaches us that nothing stays the same for long. I'm happy to predict that ageism, too, must change. I think it will be washed away, or at least significantly eroded, by the fast approaching "silver tsunami." America will soon experience a demographic upheaval of a scale not witnessed since the Baby Boom. During the next two decades, as these Boomers age, the number of Americans over 65 will double. There will be approximately 80 million of us, and we'll constitute about a fifth of the national population. Thanks to remarkable advances in medicine and technology, we can look forward to better health and longer average life expectancies. We will also, on average, be wealthier than many of our younger cohorts. In short, we are primed to live long and live well, and to serve as the standard-bearers of an idea whose time has come: ageism, in all its forms, is unacceptable. More than this, we'll be able to demonstrate that it is possible, even natural, to lead a vibrant, engaged life well into old age. Indeed, it is our responsibility to do so, and not only for ourselves. We owe it to the youngsters to show them how it's done. After all, with any luck, one day they'll get to be old too.