Growing Old in America

“Gray hair is a crown of glory.”Proverbs 16:31I’m 68, and while I don’t have hardly any gray hair yet (I can see a few silver strands if I look really close), there is no denying the fact that I am now a card carrying member (Medicare) of the older generation.

I never thought that much about getting older when I was young or even when I hit middle age. My mother passed away when she was only 54, and I thought about that a lot as I passed through my own 54th year of living on this planet of ours.

My dad passed away in June 2019 just one month shy of his 96th birthday, so I figure between my mom and my dad that I will live until some point located between their two ages at the time of their deaths. I have already surpassed the age that my mother was when she died by 14 years. And I’m still 27 years away from the age that my father was when he died.

Our society here in America values and idolizes the youth culture. Old people are not valued in America like they are valued in other cultures that celebrate aging and respect their elders (see HuffPost article published in 2017 titled, 7 Cultures that Celebrate Aging and Respect Their Elders” ). We tend to stick our elders in nursing homes or assisted living facilities if they can’t afford to stay in their own homes or if they have health issues. Of course, not every old person in America can afford a nursing home or assisted living facility. But, “out of sight out of mind” is the motto of the youth culture in America regarding old folks, but, of course, the old folks don’t feel that way. And the young tend to forget that if they live long enough, they, too, will be old.

Ageism in America is a very real issue. In a survey of older adults, 80% of them reported experiencing ageism according to an article titled, Stop Ageism Now,” by the Agency on Aging. In a January 1, 2020, letter on the topic of ageism by the Agency on Aging, it states the following:

In 1968 Dr. Robert Butler coined the term “ageism” to describe the systematic discrimination against older people. He equated it to racism and sexism during the Civil Rights movement. Fifty years later our culture has not changed. Ageism remains an often-overlooked barrier that exists across most communities in the US. Ageism puts unfair limitations on older adults’ abilities to live to their fullest potential and devalues them as individuals. 

Ageism is evident in our stereotypes of older adults. Who hasn’t uttered the words, “What a cute old lady?” or felt pity at the sight of an older man working in a grocery store. While it may seem harmless or even affectionate, looking at a person and only seeing his or her age ultimately influences our actions.

Ageism is experienced in the workplace; unemployed older adults are likely to remain unemployed twice as long as their younger counterparts. It is felt through the deep cuts to funding for programs designed to keep older adults healthy and active. Ageism is found in healthcare when symptoms are passed off as “normal aging”. It even becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for older adults themselves.

We need an attitude change to reverse this discrimination and see people for who they are, what they have accomplished and what they will accomplish. Research demonstrates that older workers have more knowledge and expertise in their positions.  They bring perspective and stability to their performance. They have higher productivity ratings, lower absentee ratings; and fewer Workers Compensation claims.  Workers 55+ complete work-training programs at a higher rate than younger counter-parts and remain on the job 15 years, on average, after completing training.

A recent AARP study concluded that Americans age 50 and up contribute so much to the U.S. economy, through both economic and unpaid activities, that they’d constitute the world’s third-largest economy if they were counted as their own country. This includes the oldest in our communities–according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 24.8% of adults 73 and older volunteer, contributing services valued at an estimated $19.2 billion.

As part of our mission to advocate for independence, we are committed to building awareness, breaking down stereotypes and challenging unfair policies. We invite you to partner with us by learning more and advocating for older adults in our communities.  Our ultimate goal is to bring back the belief that aging is a natural part of life and not a problem to be solved–we hope you’ll join us. (Quote source here.)

On the topic of Ageism, the World Health Organization states:

Tackling ageism will require a new understanding of ageing by all generations. This understanding needs to counter outdated concepts of older people as burdens, and acknowledge the wide diversity of the experience of older age, the inequities of ageism, and demonstrate a willingness to ask how society might organize itself better….

Today, there are around 600 million people aged 60 years and over worldwide. This number will double by 2025 and will reach two billion by 2050, with the vast majority of older people in the developing world.

Ageism is widely prevalent and stems from the assumption that all members of a group (for example older adults) are the same. Like racism and sexism, ageism serves a social and economic purpose: to legitimize and sustain inequalities between groups. It’s not about how we look, but about how people that have influence assign meaning to how we look. In 2014, governments around the world recognized ageism as “the common source of, the justification for, and the driving force behind age discrimination.”

Negative ageist attitudes are widely held across societies and not confined to one social or ethnic group. Research suggests that ageism may now be even more pervasive than sexism and racism. This has serious consequences both for older people and society at large. For example, ageism limits the questions that are asked and the way problems are conceptualized and is hence a major barrier to developing good policies. (Quote source here.)

In an article regarding ageism in the hiring process titled, The Ugly Truth About Age Discrimination,” by Liz Ryan, a former contributor on Forbes, she opens her article with the following conversation:

“So then the headhunter said something that took my breath away,” said my caller, Philip.

“He told me that his client looked at my resume and said it looked great, but then he found my LinkedIn profile and decided I’m a little long in the tooth for the job.”

I was silent. That took my breath away, too.

“Long in the tooth?” I asked. “As in old?”

“Exactly,” said Philip. “The headhunter actually told me that the client said I was too old for the job. I asked him if that was illegal–I’m pretty sure it is–and he said that the client’s view is that if they don’t interview me, I’m not a candidate, so it’s not discrimination.”

“That’s false,” I said, but even as I said it, I knew that it doesn’t make any difference.

What is Philip going to do–sue the employer he never met because a third-party recruiter told him that one hiring manager made an inappropriate comment? So-called “Failure to Hire” cases are notoriously hard to bring and even harder to prove. As long as the organization ends up hiring someone who is qualified for the job, how could Phil ever prove that he was rejected because of his age? It’s not as though the organization is going to publish the new hire’s age for all the other candidates to see.

Age discrimination is everywhere. I hear more examples of age discrimination than I hear about sex discrimination, racial discrimination, and every other kind put together. I expect that’s because some employers believe that older workers aren’t as nimble or perhaps aren’t as easy to train. Some of them undoubtedly worry that an older person is necessarily overqualified, and thus likely to bolt the minute a better job comes along.

That’s ridiculous, of course. Younger people are just as likely to bail for a better opportunity as older ones are. Many mature employees are more interested in the challenge and the environment than they are in a rocket-to-the-stars career path. But age discrimination persists. It’s the only kind of employment discrimination I know of that people talk about openly, either because they’re unaware of the laws preventing it (in the U.S., you’re supposed to be protected from age discrimination once you’re 40 years old, which doesn’t do a thing for young people who are told “you’re too young for this job”) or because they don’t care…. (Quote source here.)

And in an article published in 2013 titled, Researchers Find Three Causes to Ageism,” on Argentum.org, the article states:

Negative age-based stereotypes have become a major issue in the United States, and ageism will become an even bigger issue as the number of older adults is expected to double over the next two decades. Researchers have discovered the three main issues that are at the root of ageism.

Hoping to understand what causes ageism, Princeton University psychology professor Susan Fiske and graduate student Michael North focused their research on the challenge society faces to adjust to a graying population and the intergenerational tensions that can arise.

While most are familiar with descriptive ageist prejudice, in which seniors are discriminated against based on negative stereotypes (i.e. seniors are “slow” or have poor memory), the researchers focused on ageism that is based on what psychologists call prescriptive prejudice. Prescriptive ageist prejudices are beliefs about how older adults should differ from others. When older adults do not adhere to these beliefs, they are punished by those who discriminate against them.

The researchers found that the prescriptive stereotypes center on three key issues:

  • Succession–the idea that older adults should move aside from high-paying jobs and prominent social roles to make way for younger people;
  • Identity–the idea that older people should not attempt to act younger than they are; and
  • Consumption–the idea that seniors should not consume so many scarce resources such as health care.

Across six studies, the researchers concluded that younger adults were most likely to endorse these prescriptive stereotypes. The researchers noted that this was especially concerning because ageism is the one form of discrimination in which those who are generally doing the discriminating, younger generations, will eventually become part of the targeted demographic. [Emphasis mine.]

“If there’s one take away from this research, it’s that it’s important to focus on the facts of these demographic changes rather than misguided perceptions,” North said. “Talking about these issues helps you find constructive ways to address them.” (Quote source here.)

But enough for the bad news on growing old in America. I read a devotion this morning in a book I have previously quoted from titled, 31 Days of Encouragement as We Grow Older,” by Ruth Myers (1928-2010), who was a missionary with The Navigators, a popular conference speaker and beloved author. The devotion is found on “Day 20” (pp.99-103), and it is titled, “Not a Bad Word.” She writes:

Why has “old” become a bad word?

Elders, senior citizens, the golden years–we have lots of terms designed to spruce up the final years of life, to cushion the blows as life rushes past us. We like to call it anything but old age!

I’m not against terminologies such as senior citizen and the golden years–they have a dignified, appealing ring to them. There’s nothing wrong with new expressions, new perspectives, new ways of looking at reality.

But maybe we should also dig out the disliked and discarded term “old” and take a fresh look at it. It has gained bad press in a society that glories in youthful appearance and boundless pleasures and energies; that represses thoughts of death; that glorifies health, achievement, and success; that associates “old” with ugliness, insignificance, and lack of purpose–with everything our youth-centered society wants to avoid and shunt to the sidelines. “Think young! Refuse to think you’re old!” Does this reflect the way God looks at life?

We need to see aging from God’s point of view. The Bible doesn’t see “old age” as an undesirable state to avoid. In Leviticus 19:32 the Lord says, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God” [the NIV version states “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord”]. Gray hair is to be honored! And the Bible promises that God continues His full commitment to old people:

I will be your God throughout your lifetime—until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.Isaiah 46:4, NLT

God promises great things to the old person who walks with Him!

Each season of life–spring, summer, autumn, winter–has its own special beauty and possibilities. The winter offers special joys if we’re spiritually tuned in to the Lord. As older people in life’s winter, we can experience inner springtime by tuning in to God’s voice of love and hope–by His reassurance that every day we come a little nearer home.

It’s not that God promises that our final years will be easy! The Bible warns against the pitfalls of self-centered old age, as in Ecclesiastes 4:13, which speaks of “an old and foolish king who no longer know how to take advice.” But advancing years can bring new glory, new inner resources, We see this in 2 Corinthians 4:16:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.

So we can think “old” in a positive way. Aging is an opportunity to bear spiritual fruit and to deepen our knowledge of Christ. It’s an opportunity to continue to store up treasures in heaven, to enjoy sweet familiarity with God, and to increase our eternal capacity for Him.

So we can develop a glad honesty: I’m growing older, but this is my new chance to enjoy more fully the truest love and riches. It’s a path to new spiritual frontiers, a fuller vision of God, an increased capacity for Him. It lets us breathe more often the fresh air of heaven and sense the wonder of His presence.

Do we take pride in being able to say that physically we haven’t slackened our pace in the least? For some this may be the Lord’s will. But let’s be sure it is His will–that we’re not opting out on an important stage of growth.

Let’s think of “old” in a positive way. Let’s view it as an opportunity to wean ourselves more and more from lesser things and to enjoy greater things!

If at present you’re really not-so-old, thinking about these things won’t hurt you a bit; instead it will help you prepare for a fruitful and satisfying old age filled with a growing joy in the Lord.

And if you are in middle or old age, it can awaken and deepen a positive outlook toward advancing in years. As poet Robert Browning wrote, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” Old age is not necessarily the easiest season of life–maybe it’s the hardest for some of us–but in many ways it really can be the best season in this life. And it can better prepare us for a very best life forever.

“Thank You, Lord, for the gift of old age! Thank You for all the blessings it brings. Most of all, thank You for the honor You give to those who are older.” (Quote source: “31 Days of Encouragement,” pp. 99-103).

And that, my friends, is the best news of all about growing old in America and everywhere else, too. And God’s view tops all other views that society places on growing old.

I’ll end this post with the words of Jesus found in Matthew 28:20: And be sure of this…

I am with you always . . .

Even to the end . . .

Of the age . . . .

YouTube Video: “Keep Me In The Moment” by Jeremy Camp:

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