Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Sensitivity of Ageism

When I was at the gym last week in Manhattan, I overheard a personal trainer refer to his client, a distinguished looking man most likely over 70, as Buddy. I was horrified.

It reminded me of when I’d visit my father in Arizona and take him out to lunch.  It was in his last years while he still was living independently. He had been a successful Wall Street lawyer, always in command, always distinguished.  Now he was in his mid-80’s and not so distinguished and no longer with the trappings that came with his status as a successful lawyer.  Even when I struggled to help him manage the trip from the car, navigate the curb, then the walk to the restaurant entrance and then to the table, I still saw him as dignified and someone to respect.  He still had his wits about him and still had his wonderful sense of humor. He still was my father.

And then someone, the hostess or the waiter would speak to him in the same patronizing tone as that personal trainer and I’d cringe and want to lash out and correct.  Whether these people knew it or not, they are and were treating these older adults like infants or half-wits.

It also happened in the nursing home where my father spent his last months.  The highlight of that stay—in a home with an excellent reputation—was the visit from the woman who brought in the therapy dog once a week.  She spoke to the residents as adults and was respectful.  Otherwise, my father and the other residents were treated like nursery school children.   Even the tone of voice of the nurses and aids in the nursing home was that special tone that inept preschool teachers save for their most recalcitrant students.

Most of us, at least in the progressive and inclusive area where I live, make an effort to be sensitive about gender differences, sexual orientation, race and religion, but when it comes to age, so many people are tone deaf.  I considered sending an email to my gym telling them what I overheard and how offensive I thought it was, but I wasn’t sure if I was being sensitive on behalf of my father and my memories of him or myself since although I’m not as old as that man or my father, I’m no longer young.

One might say disrespect to the elderly is the least of our society’s problems in these days of turmoil. The case against ageism may not be as compelling as the one against racism or other minorities.  In fact, as boomers, we seniors are climbing into the majority. On the other hand, most of us won’t escape getting old and a society more sensitive to the reality of the elderly would, no matter what our other minority statuses, be a more tolerable and kinder place to live and age.


  1. Oh I totally agree, Deborah. I have a soft spot in my heart for the elderly. Our French Club Aux. group is hosting a luncheon on Vet. Day for about 50 vets from the VA. I'm so looking forward to working with them and serving them. They deserve our respect.

  2. The bottom line- it is all about respect for people. It should never matter, age, gender, or any other choice. Like Aretha Franklin said RESPECT- find out what it means to me. Lucinda Race

  3. Hi Deborah--
    It has always bothered me to see people talking to elderly citizens as if they were children. Where does that come from? I agree that ageism is an issue that gets little attention compared to society's other problems. Thanks for bringing it to light.

    1. Yes, I can see that it struck a chord. Maybe because it's such a common occurrence and rarely acknowledged.

  4. I agree completely. I don't know where it comes from or when it began, but I find it disturbing to hear the way younger people talk to older adults. I'm trying to find ways to counter it without also appearing rude. Thanks for writing this and educating others.