Don't Let Ageism Define You. How To Enjoy Life At Every Stage
What comes to mind when you think of aging?
Is it wrinkles and gray hair? Trouble with technology? Crankiness, achy bones or being hard of hearing?
It's said that age is just a number, but Becca Levy, Yale researcher and author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live, says that how we think about aging can impact us on behavioral, psychological and even physiological levels.
Through research spanning over 20 years, "I found that older people with more-positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively than those with more-negative perceptions," Levy writes. "They were more likely to recover from severe disability, they remembered better, they walked faster and they even lived longer."
It's a shockingly straightforward means of preventative care. Yet, truly ridding yourself of negative age beliefs is easier said than done. From age-defying wrinkle creams to ads poking fun at senior citizens, ageist stereotypes are all around us — and their impact is much more than skin-deep. In the U.S., age prejudice has been called one of the most socially-condoned and institutionalized forms of prejudice,and a 2021 United Nations report suggests half of the world's entire population holds ageist attitudes.
Age discrimination can limit access to work opportunities, housing and even health care – and that's not just a problem for older people. "We are all aging and we all have loved ones who are aging," Levy says.
By truly internalizing more positive age beliefs, you can not only improve your quality of life at every age, but bring us all a little closer to Levy's idea of age liberation, or equal opportunities and inclusion of people regardless of their age.
Here are her ABC's to harnessing more positive age beliefs.
A – increase AWARENESS
Like other forms of discrimination, ageism is pervasive and infiltrates every layer of our daily lives from our media to our internal dialogues. Changing negative age beliefs starts by first identifying and understanding problem areas.
Levy's image of aging quiz is a great place to start. From there, she suggests starting with one week of what she calls "age belief journaling."
"Write down every portrayal of aging that you come across," says Levy — from advertising to TV shows to casual conversation. This can reveal the areas in your life where explicit and implicit biases might lie. "Questioning the negative portrayals," says Levy, "is really important."
Consider how you speak to the older people in your life, for example. Do you use simplified language? A louder than normal volume? Do you get more easily frustrated when trying to explain things to older relatives because you assume they won't understand?
Imaging and stereotypes
Think about the portrayal of older people on your favorite TV shows – were the characters portrayed positively, negatively or in a nuanced way? Were they absent from conversations? Levy says once you start to challenge all the media messaging you receive, you'll begin to realize just how much there is to combat.
Older people, like any other group, aren't a monolith. Don't assume every grandpa in your life has the same interests. It's important, Levy says, to build up a diverse and nuanced portfolio of positive aging influences in your life, and to do that, you have to have lots of people of different ages with different interests in your circle! If all of your friends are around the same age, it's probably time to expand out.
B – BLAME ageism, not aging
Once you've gained awareness of your age beliefs, you can begin to reshape your understanding of aging in real-time by redirecting blame from aging to ageism.
"A good place to begin," writes Levy, "is by recognizing that it is often ageism that makes being old difficult, not the aging process itself."
Take the idea of a "senior moment." If you or an older person you know misplaces their keys or forgets a date, remember that this is a negative age belief speaking, not an objective assessment of the aging process. Could the real culprit be that you're stressed, rushed, distracted, sad?
Instead of immediately making age the villain, look for the real cause of the problem.
C – CHALLENGE age beliefs
The more we challenge negative age beliefs, the less firm their grasp will be, says Levy. This can happen in small and big ways, but it starts at the individual level.
One way to do this is to call out ageist behavior when you see it. That could look like questioning your coworker's old-timer joke, talking to your siblings about the way they interact with your grandparents or stopping your parents from using ageist language on themselves.
Challenging age beliefs also looks like practicing and reinforcing positive age beliefs wherever you can. Ask your great-uncle to go on a hike. Write down all the things you admire about the older people in your life. Find a new older friend, learn their story and be reminded that life offers lessons at every age.