I take my 90-plus-year-old mother shopping for lingerie at a department store. The store has moved things around, and there’s too much walking, and not enough chairs or benches for resting in between treks through athletic gear and housewares to get to the destination.
Finally there, the colourful displays of tiny lace panties and embellished bras seem to go on forever, but back in the corner, we find a rack of boxed white cotton bras in only one style for the 40DDD and up sizes.
Her hope of finding one with a front zipper (much like a sports bra) for ease of fastening with arthritic fingers and dimming vision is gone. We eventually find the only box in her size, 42DD, but she’s disappointed. A similar situation confronts our search for comfortable white cotton briefs.
She’s exhausted, and then has to endure a long line to pay at the centrally located checkout. I might add that shopping online is out of the question for her. She only wants to buy things she can see and touch, and doesn’t even want to own a computer.
Ageism and America’s aging population
Most people don’t want to think about what it means to get older. Age discrimination is prohibited by law, but is rampant in our society (like racism, sexism and homophobia). If you care for an elderly person, you will see it everywhere—even, most disturbingly, within yourself.
We are a nation in denial, slowly awakening to the reality of our aging population. Witness the evening network news with its prolific and repetitive advertisements for pharmaceuticals. There’s Celebrex, Eliquis, Linzess, Neulasta, Zanic, Restasis and the ever-popular little blue pills, Viagra or Cialis.
While getting a weather update or the latest highlights of the day’s events, we are bombarded with ads that promise relief for ailments we didn’t even know we had or one day will have. They often end with the words, “Call your doctor.” Good luck with that.
As an aside, I’ve never understood why the Cialis commercials show a couple watching the sunset while holding hands from their separate bathtubs. Shouldn’t they be together if they are having or have just had sex?
Shelf space vs. customer consideration
Awkward but necessary, grocery stores are another stumbling stone for the elderly. The newest ones are huge, and are designed to add steps between sought-after necessities: milk is on the far side from meat, and soup is an acre away from the Aspirin that’s needed by the time the oldest shoppers get there.
Grocery stores in older buildings seem to go through frequent remodellings, during which products are moved around to accommodate the fierce competition for shelf space among the product brands. There is little consideration for accommodating the customers, especially if they’re elderly and have become accustomed to finding their favourite products in certain places.
Many stores have motorized, sit-down carts that shoppers can ride in, but it’s impossible to reach the cereal on the top shelf while sitting down. Bending and stooping to the lowest shelf for sugar is equally difficult.
The maximization of space to allow for more and more competition among more and more products is unlikely to stop, but even the home-delivery trends, arranged by phone, require knowing which product you want—thus, negating the meaning of the word “shop.” Ordering online is still a mystery to many elderly people, because they don’t have computers or are wary of ordering with credit cards online.
We’ve lost mutual respect
Imagine an orphanage on the same grounds as a retirement facility, and the potential blossoming of two-way interaction that could be beneficial to both age groups. But we’ve lost that mutual respect. Sprawling housing complexes exist for those aged 55 and older, and have become like communities unto themselves, with golf courses, theatres, swimming pools and a plethora of other facilities for the exclusive use of the residents and their ‘adult’ guests.
Can this segmentation of society lead to stagnation and a lack of progress? No interaction equals no understanding. There’s a refusal or a reluctance to interact, and if we don’t know the ‘other,’ how can we learn to respect them? This goes both ways. The reverse of ageism is the segregation of youth.
This is ironic, because America’s a nation that’s obsessed with efforts to look younger. Everywhere, there are anti-aging cosmetics, products and schemes.
A good by-product of this obsession is chasing after better health. Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg hits the gym at age 85! We all feel better when we have the strength and energy to do the things we want to do, such as bra shopping or grocery shopping. But regardless of the Americans with Disabilities Act, most places are difficult for aging bodies to manoeuvre.
It starts with our language
It actually starts with our language. As a society, we have become sensitive to terms we consider racist or sexist, and many of us are likely to call out others whom we hear using them. We need to develop the same kind of sensitivity when it comes to stereotypical terms for older people. I’m thinking of ‘senior moments,’ ‘old crone,’ ‘over the hill’ and ‘gramps.’
Advertisers must be aware of the buying power of seniors, and understand that a more positive portrayal can help send the message that age is not an indicator of value.
It’s not just the words, because often they are used with a smirking tolerance, as if they are backhanded compliments or a self-righteous condescension. Here, it is appropriate to mention reverse ageism, too, in which younger people are derided as being entitled, lazy or incompetent.
It is true that people who are discriminated against often are active discriminators against others. Speaking to all people with respect is paramount.
We’ve become aware of media bias in regard to race and gender, but it also exists in regard to the older generation. Images of older people who have fallen and can’t get up, or are magically active through the use of certain medications, are common. Advertisers must be aware of the buying power of seniors, and understand that a more positive portrayal can help send the message that age is not an indicator of value.
Getting old is part of being human
Much of the resistance to technology from older people is the result of a lack of awareness, or the fact that they’re not educated enough about it to be comfortable with its use. Teaching technology in a hands-on fashion to students who haven’t grown up with it is a golden opportunity. Some startups and established tech companies are recognizing this, to their benefit.
Intergenerational housing is another experiment being tried with foster children and seniors. The smart money is realizing that retirement holds many opportunities for second careers that utilize the talents and experience of older individuals. Age is no longer a barrier to employment, as jobs can be tailored to the strengths and desires of the employees. Many seniors choose volunteerism to fill the time formerly held by full-time employment.
As for me, I’ve come to see Mom’s contributions and the beauty of her frailty as she ages. Getting old is part of being human, a part we all would like to have bathed in comfort and understanding. With that being said, it’s time to take another look at ageism in our society.