A few hours into my hospital adventure, I was asked to sign something on an electronic tablet. Someone else was talking to me at the time, I was a little goofy from pain meds, and had an IV that kept catching on the side of the bed. In other words, I was not at my best. Realizing that I had signed a document I did not understand, I asked about it, and a few minutes later a hospital staffer from the Registration Department showed up. He seemed irritated with my questions. (Sorry, still a reporter at heart. I always have lots of questions.)
At one point, he uttered the words, “It’s nothing to worry about, young lady.” Judging from his tone, it was clearly not just an awkward, ill-advised attempt at endearment; it was an effort to establish a power differential. I didn’t see red, but it was definitely hot pink around the edges. It was sexist and dismissive. He called me “young lady” a total of four times in that conversation. And I didn’t speak up for myself. That’s what I keep thinking about.
Ageism touches our lives in the workplace, in relationships, in medical care, and beyond. Even advertisers feel free to indulge in it. Take a quick look at a few recent commercials: https://www.clickinsights.asia/post/5-commercials-that-reinforced-ageism-with-the-worst-stereotypes (#3 is particularly appalling). Given that this publication is geared to people over 50, I imagine it’s an experience most of us have had.
Like all forms of bigotry, one of the worst risks is internalizing it. People with negative views of aging tend not to live as long as others. Succumbing to a loss of identity or feeling invisible can isolate and depress us. Research shows that social interventions can reduce ageist attitudes (https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305123) but the problem remains pervasive.
So why didn’t I speak up? Maybe I did a millisecond of calculation and decided it wasn’t a priority. Maybe I was just surprised and too tired to make an issue of it. Maybe staying silent revealed a hint of diminished self-esteem? I turned 65 this year, signed up for Medicare, located every discount I could find, and I also realized that there aren’t that many shopping days before Christmas, if you know what I mean. Trips shouldn’t be postponed. Things that I meant to do someday actually need to happen soon so that this stage of life is as full as I can make it.
I might feel 40, but that doesn’t change what many people see when they look at people over 50 and especially over 65. The stereotypes of older people insist that we are frail or ill or inept at technology. But we can all use our voices and correct the biases inch by inch. In fact, psychologists say it’s helpful to all parties to identify ageism when we see it, and to fully occupy our social space. It’s crucial to remember who we are, all that we are and were and will be. Let’s “be the change we want to see in the world,” as the saying goes. I won’t be wrong-footed next time. I will speak up. Because I’m nobody’s young lady.