Of all the negative isms that fester in daily life, ageism is surely amongst the most prevalent, and unacknowledged. Sure, most people are aware that it’s unacceptable to patronise, put down and denigrate those who are deemed ‘elderly’, ‘old’ or ‘aged’, but somehow these discriminatory practices tend to escape our notice.
I’ll be honest and admit that at times, as a sixty-eight-year-old, I do make fun of my age, especially on the tennis court, yelling out, “you stupid old bastard” or “fossil” when one of my shots goes flying. It’s on such occasions that my (invariably younger) opponents stare at me with a mixture of pity and consternation, although the reference to fossil does sometimes elicit a giggle.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself”, one player remarked. He might have said, “don’t be such an arsehole, Richard”. And he’d be right, because my momentary tantrums reflect on more than me. They demean others in my age group and older, and hint at lesser worth borne of chronological deficit. In lieu of enhanced self-compassion, therefore, I feel obliged to point to the dangers of such lapses and call out others when they slide down the same slope, as they frequently do.
Over the course of the pandemic, I have more than once been horrified by those seeking their ‘freedom’ or ‘sovereignty’ who say of the lockdowns: “Why imprison us like this? People should have their freedom. You lose your freedom, you lose everything. We should be entitled to do what we want. Anyway, it’s only the old and weak that die”.
Leaving aside the obvious inaccuracies in such drivel – young people are increasingly infected by, and occasionally dying from the Delta virus – the insensitivity is breath-taking. Comments like these are invariably uttered without nuance or qualification, or any hint of reflexivity, let alone compassion. They’re stated as “simple facts” that reflect the “natural order of things”. I’ve taken to responding to these assertions by saying things like, “well, I’m old, so am I expendable too?” or, “the last time I heard comments like that it brought to mind the Nazi T4 program”. A long bow? I’m not so sure.
Who on earth do we classify as weak – those with disabilities, with co-morbidities, the sick, kids? And, is it acceptable to consign the elderly to a premature death simply because they are old? Is that what’s being inferred here? Haven’t they got a right to life like any other citizen? Don’t they make significant contributions to our society? Are they expendable in the calculus of personal freedoms? Should they be sacrificed for the greater good – of freedom?
This is utilitarianism gone mad. It’s as if older people have been emptied of value, which certainly doesn’t accord with my understanding of social justice. And I’ve yet to hear what freedom fighters regard as old. In my world, it’s always five years older than I currently am, which means I’m never old. So there!
Is the flippant dismissal of older people symptomatic of other routinized forms of age discrimination? I think so. It’s hardly surprising that a lot of older people complain of feeling invisible, by which they mean that some younger people no longer acknowledge or listen to them. Many older people in non-Indigenous cultures feel this way. The respect accorded to elders seems tenuous, at best.
A woman in her early seventies recently told me of being on a train while a couple of twenty-somethings in front of her deconstructed the previous night’s torrid sexual encounter. Not a hint of self-consciousness or embarrassment. “It was as if I didn’t exist”, she said, adding that “it was entertaining though”.
Less alluring perhaps are those occasions when someone evokes the reference to “old white men” as a pejorative swipe at nasty blokes in positions of power. Leaving aside the empirical inaccuracies, such off-the-cuff remarks invariably come without nuance or context. I’ve heard people talk like this while sitting next to their partners who just happen to be aged six decades, and some. Occasionally I point out that I belong in that age cohort, an observation invariably greeted with guffaws of laughter. I’m not entirely stupid so I know what these comments are getting at, but somehow, they still sting. I think I’m more concerned about how some sections of the community are so casually othered, and where all this ends up.
But then again, I would say that; I’m just a grumpy old man.