Resisting Ageism Through Education


March 12, 2019 by Jean

imageAlthough I am proud to be an educator, I’m not a person who feels that education is the solution to all problems. Nevertheless, I’ve always thought the kind of teaching I do about social inequalities could be a type of consciousness raising. By making people aware of social patterns that were previously invisible to them, I can lead them to reflect on how their own attitudes and behaviors are shaped by those patterns.

When I learned from research by Becca Levy and her colleagues at the Yale School of Public Health that elders who resist ageism have better outcomes in both physical and mental health than those who accept ageist stereotypes, I realized that one way I could resist was through education.

Two years ago, I developed a presentation on aging, health and happiness to deliver as a public lecture at Gettysburg College, where I taught for many years (see Paradoxes of Aging, Health and Happiness). Last spring, I repeated the presentation for a class in Sociology of Aging taught by a former student at Bates College. I think of this talk as a “stereotype-buster.” It challenges the conventional framing of aging as a time of decline and ends with an exhortation for people of all ages to resist the myriad forms of ageism we experience in our lives.

Last month, I had an opportunity to present this anti-ageism message to students about to complete Master’s degrees in Occupational Therapy from University of Southern Maine and taking a required course on “Occupational Therapy and Older Adults”. The opportunity to raise the consciousness of future health care professionals struck me as an especially valuable form of resistance. Since I had most of a three-hour class at my disposal, I began with the “Paradoxes of Aging, Health and Happiness” presentation, went on to read some excerpts from the journal I kept last year about my experience of aging alone, and ended with a discussion of sources of social support (especially for those aging alone) and the issue of social isolation.

I wasn’t sure how receptive the students would be. The course normally meets for two three-hour sessions per week; my presentation would take place at an additional three-hour class sandwiched into the middle of the week. Would students be feeling put upon by this extra class session and eager to escape to deal with other pressing demands? I needn’t have worried. The students were attentive and engaged, asked excellent questions, and made very thoughtful comments; and several approached me during the break and after class to ask for more information or my thoughts about projects they are working on.

At the end of class, students were asked to take a few minutes to jot down their “ah-ha moments” from the class, and the course teaching assistant typed up all those comments and sent them to me. The student feedback provided gratifying evidence that I had succeeded in raising consciousness and challenging stereotypes. Here are a selection of those comments:

    • I think one of my first “ah-ha” moments is thinking about the fact that aging alone does not equal an undesirable situation. I think that older adults in this country are almost an invisible population and it is easy to stereotype.
    • Ageism and those subliminal messages can have a big impact on overall health.
    • Very informative- especially the tips on support systems and how people like/don’t like to be referred to. Also, independent and alone does not equal unhappiness.
    • As you age you become happier. Attitudes matter! Challenge the negative stereotypes with positive perceptions and images.
    • When you showed statistics comparing wellness and health that elders perceive themselves healthy and also the happiest when they get older! I honestly had no idea elders felt this way. It has made me think about how to approach this population as a future occupational therapist.
    • Ah-ha moment – All types of relationships matter. Social isolation is different for everyone. Whoops moment – stop describing people older than me as cute!
    • We do not need to be treating older adults as ‘cute’ because it can take away their own feelings of competence and empowerment. Treat them as individuals and don’t forget that they are people.
    • Consider perceived isolation because it can impact a person’s health. Don’t just consider what supports they have but also how they view these supports.
    • Not everyone wants to be social all the time. This idea should have been an obvious one, but for some reason I thought of being social as the only important thing.

8 thoughts on “Resisting Ageism Through Education

  1. Jean R. says:

    The word ‘cute’ is such a dichotomy. It’s a common word used on Facebook to describe babies, kittens and puppies that are either inquisitive pursuing something new in their world, playfully engaged or sound to sleep in pure innocence. Then we apply the word ‘cute’ to teenagers and it’s still considered a compliment. Some where along the way to getting gray hair having the word applied to us, becomes annoying. We read it as condescending or dismissive and the people using it may not mean it that way at all. It’s good to discuss things like this when talking about aging so younger people will start to see us as individuals but it’s also good for us to work on not being overly sensitive. I, for one, have a lot in common with those babies, kittens and puppies inquisitively perusing what is new in my world. If that pursuit is ‘cute’ when were young, then what would we call it in seniors, if not cute?

    • Jean says:

      Hi Jean, I agree that we need to pick our battles; while resisting ageism is good for health, walking around angry all the time is not. I also agree that context is important. In my experience, “cute” is usually used to describe competence in elders. That was the example I used in my presentation, and that is the use I try to call people on.
      I’m not much inclined to worry about being overly sensitive; I know this is a charge that is routinely leveled at those resisting racism or sexism or ageism in an attempt to silence them. On the other hand, since I want to change people’s ageist attitudes and behaviors, I do give considerable thought to how I can make people think without offending them. In the case of the local news anchor who described a story about an eighty-two year old seamstress volunteering her skills to alter and mend garments for the homeless as “so cute,” I asked the news anchor simply to consider whether she would have described the same story about a thirty-two year old seamstress or a forty-two year old seamstress as “cute.”

  2. Honey Bee says:

    I had a small victory of sorts on Saturday. An employee of my favourite bookstore addressed me as “dear” in all our interactions. It rankled and I thought about how to confront this in a non confrontational way.

    So, when checking out, I told her, “My name is ______. You can call me _________.” And she told me she’d remembered my last name from my previous orders, but couldn’t recall my first name. She then thanked me and used my first name. I was so relieved that all went well and one little bump in the road is now smooth. A little example of “Think big, start small.”

    • Jean says:

      Honey Bee, Thanks for sharing this. I learned two things from your example: First, it’s possible to confront ageism without being confrontational. Second, if something rankles and it’s not a one-time interaction, it’s better to address it as soon as possible rather than letting it fester. I could have benefited from both of these lessons in dealing with the men on a committee I serve on in my rural town. I’m the only woman, and the atmosphere is very much “old boys club.” Mostly, the men are oblivious to how sexist they are. Early on, several of the men started referring to me as ‘Jeannie,’ a nickname I haven’t used since I was a teenager. It rankled, but I didn’t say anything because I was trying to be a cooperative “good girl.” Instead, it festered until finally, after three years, I exploded — not a good way to handle the situation.

    • Super way to respond. Thanks!

  3. […] there). Similar to my presentation to the Occupational Therapy students earlier in the year (see Resisting Ageism Through Education), this was a stereotype-busting presentation of research about health and happiness among elders […]

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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