Have you ever said you had a ‘senior moment’ after misplacing your keys? Do you grumble about ‘old age’ when your body’s stiff or sore? I have and I’m not alone.
After posting those questions on Facebook, I heard from 87 people. Six answered no. These results aren’t statistically significant, but they are interesting. There’s a name for what we’re doing – internalized ageism, or age stereotyping. Here’s the kicker: Research shows internalized ageism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In a blog post about the relationship between ageism and Alzheimer’s Ashton Applewhite, an American writer and activist, refers to research conducted by Becca Levy, professor of public health (social and behavioural sciences) and psychology at Yale. Her study shows that when we’re negative about getting old, we can start to feel, and even act, old and that can undermine our ability to age positively.
Say it often enough and it becomes believable. Which can affect our health, as I discovered when I spoke with Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics, Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto. “I see patients all the time who assume the symptoms they’re experiencing are normal signs of aging when, in fact, they’re resolvable medical issues,” he says.
One of Dr. Sinha’s colleagues, Dr. Lesley Wiesenfeld, psychiatrist-in-chief Sinai Health System and head of geriatric consultation liaison psychiatry service, adds: “This attitude isn’t confined to our physical health. There’s also an assumption that it’s ‘normal’ to be depressed in older age, which is just not true. It’s about whether or not you’re prone to depression and anxiety, not about how young or old you are.”
Why do we self-label?
Quite simply, we’re influenced by what we see and hear around us like commercials that warn us we can look forward to dentures and adult diapers when we “get old.” Dr. Sinha explains it this way: “Unlike indigenous communities, for example, where aging is associated with prestige and wisdom, in North America aging isn’t really valued. So we internalize those messages and associate negative attributes with aging.” And as Dr. Wiesenfeld points out, we focus on ‘loss’ instead of ‘gain.’
“There’s a flip side to it as well,” according to Dr. Wiesenfeld. “When we read about a 105-year old marathon runner, our reaction is often to compare ourselves to them. If we don’t measure up, which most of us can’t, we end up thinking less of ourselves — even if the expectation is completely unrealistic. We have to learn to put things into perspective.”
So either way, whether we’re negative about aging or expect too much of ourselves, what we’re doing is devaluing our own worth, which is where internalized ageism begins.
“Aging isn’t a problem or disease. Aging is living.”
We can change the narrative
The first step is self-awareness. I had no idea I was being ageist every time I complained about my bad knee. joking that old age isn’t for sissies. Now that I know better, I can avoid making “negative” jokes or comments about aging – something all of us can, and should, do.
We can also challenge others when they do it.
Next, we also need to educate ourselves. As Dr. Sinha suggests: “We have to learn to distinguish between something that needs medical attention or is just a normal part of aging. Addressing treatable conditions can significantly improve our health, wellbeing and quality of life.”
Being positive is also essential. So let’s adjust our thinking, change our attitude and embrace the idea of getting older. In her 2017 TED talk, which you can watch here, Ashton Applewhite describes it perfectly: “Aging isn’t a problem or disease. Aging is living.”
Why is this a big deal? According to the latest data from Stats Canada, three in 10 Canadians are Baby Boomers, which makes this an important conversation to have. And who better to start it than us?