This article is written in response to a blog post by a woman who declared she was “coming out about being old.” She didn’t want to keep her age secret anymore.
Proposition: If you are “old,” telling your age will help change negative perceptions and attitudes about old people.
Our culture attaches enormous significance to chronological age, particularly in the later years. Once midlife is reached, stereotypical expectations for how we are supposed to live and be kick into high gear and often, it’s our own fault for allowing it to happen. When it comes to dealing with the tyranny of chronological age, we are wimps. Without thinking, we fall into line and do what custom and tradition dictate as the norm “for our age” and then we wonder why we become old clones. It’s time to pull the plug on the power of chronological age.
I’ve done just that. To the extent possible, I keep my age to myself. I refuse to categorize or “seniorize” myself to be in lockstep with a culture that has stereotypical rules for how I ought to be at my age/stage of life.
One reason I do not advertise my age is that I have learned the hard way that there is a difference between others knowing your age and guessing your age. When your age is known you are subject to well meaning but condescending remarks such as “You look great for your age.” Then there is the groundless assumption you are not quite as competent as you once were — “Here, let me help you with that.” I know the offer to help is out of kindness but if you appear younger than you are and your age is not known, others tend to be more matter of fact about how they interact with you. You are accepted as “one of the tribe.”
I disagree with the contention that revealing one’s age is important to foster respect and to change perceptions and attitudes about old people. It may, but it also may generate a phony facade of respect. Genuine respect doesn’t occur from telling; it just perpetuates stereotypes about old people. Regardless of age, respect has to be earned.
I try to earn respect by publishing a monthly online newsletter that advances balanced lifelong growth and productivity, and I build websites. Those who know my age marvel at my techie prowess and nerdiness, and they gush about how wonderful I am for my age. I hate it. It makes me angry. If my age were not known I would not be considered an anomaly.
My age doesn’t produce anything; my competence does. Being told “you are wonderful for your age” is insulting. Yes, I’m wonderful, but my age has nothing to do with my wonderfulness; it’s simply the result of gritty determination to be who I want to be in the face of a culture that promotes conformity to an outdated model of “appropriate” aging. The “you are wonderful for your age” nonsense won’t change until mature competence and productivity are encouraged and become a norm. Overcoming that hurdle, and not revealing age, will change attitudes and beliefs about old people.
Ideally, chronological age should be as private as a bank account number. And speaking of numbers, I am not a number. I am body, mind, and soul. If I am to be judged, let it be based who I am and what I do, and not on the number of years I have lived.
Lorraine Banfield says
I agree with you Barbara and I am going to write an article for that website about this myself. Here is what I see about telling people your age – it automatically puts you in a category – as this writer even says and that category is old and used up, needing special help. Even the word old implies having served your purpose and now you are done, old, used up, a senior citizen. Those are labels that tell people who you are and what you are capable and they are bogus. What I also know from my work as a psychotherapist is that whatever you tell yourself, in your own mind and what you say to others, is what you are and will become. If a person tells him/herself they are old, then guess what – they are and will become more and more so as time goes on.
Here is another very important fact – people are living on average twenty to thirty, sometimes forty years longer than their parent’s generation and so what was old for this woman’s parents, is no longer old. To tell herself at 70 that she is old is to put a damper on her life and this will indeed make her old. She may believe that she is doing a service by writing this and her books but to me she is perpetuating a myth, one that does not serve, but instead contributes to a mindset that needs to be changed, not validated. I will never say I am old or a senior citizen, I’m an individual with passion, purpose and possibilities in my life – as I say in my book – I deplore the idea that people at by a certain age are to be put in box marked old.
Another thing I know from my work as a therapist is that words and labels are powerful and have either magical power to enrich, enliven and bring possibilities into our lives or they have evil power that belittle us, limit us and remove hope and put us in a box that is confining, miserable and pointless. If I told my clients they were crazy or mentally ill or gave them a medical/mental health diagnosis, then guess what? that is exactly what they would become. I never do that. I tell them they are struggling with a life challenge and that they can learn and grow from it. And that is the bottom line in all this – as long
as a person is growing and learning and contributing then they are not old, I
don’t care what their chronological might be.
So, calling yourself old is a label with the power to make you old, which is an end point and not a place of possibilities. I also think that for some people it’s an excuse and a comfort zone – now they don’t have to do anything ’cause they’re old. What a bunch of mindless hooey! I am nowhere near the end, maybe when I’m 100 hundred I’ll admit I’m old, but even then I doubt it!!