See if You May Be a Victim of Ageism

Attitudes toward aging have the power to shape our self-image, behavior and actual health.


Remember the old saw, “You’re only as old as you feel?” It needs to be replaced. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has some bad-feeling moments as they cross into their 60s, 70s and 80s. No, the new catch-phrase for aging, particularly among the “newly” aging boomers, should be, “You’re only as old as you act.”

Kay Van Norman, an aging and wellness consultant (when she’s not riding her horse in and around Bozeman, Mont.) remembers a couple of events in her life about eight years ago that marked a branch in the road of her own development and attitudes toward aging. “My mother had a stroke about eight years ago,” she recalled in a recent interview. “The change in her attitude really amazed me. She had been really active before the stroke; she was an outdoors woman and ranch woman. But afterward, she kept saying, ‘Oh, I can’t do this; I’ve had a stroke.’ Well, that’s just wrong.”

Van Norman also faced her own physical challenge when leg injuries caused her doctors to recommend that she give up dancing – a passion that had been part of her core identity. She heeded their advice, but only for a time, and began shaping an attitude toward physical fitness and aging that has made her an aggressive advocate for a new, and healthier, set of attitudes toward aging and the physical capabilities of older people.

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“Let me give you an example of the insidious way that prevailing social attitudes play a role here, even among people who should know better,” she says. “Say that a 35-year-old person has a stroke. The focus of attention, of all our adaptive strategies, is to get that person back to being a fully functioning member of society.

“Now, say that a 75-year-old person has a stroke. What are our attitudes then? Overwhelmingly, the approach is to help this person cope with their new set of disabilities. It’s not to return them to their former lifestyle, even though they may be nearly as capable of such a recovery as that 35-year-old.”

This different attitude is, Van Norman maintains, one of many examples of “ageism” – treating older people differently in a manner that is not in their best interests. “There is just a huge difference,” she concludes, “between coping with a disability and prevailing over it.”

Many attitudes toward aging and older people were formed 30 and more years ago, she says, laying a lot of the blame at the feet of the medical and research communities. “A lot of the fundamental geriatric research was done on people living in nursing homes,” she says. “Well, many of these people already had serious physical problems, but they were not representative of older people in general. However, our attitudes toward older people have been shaped by how we related to that smaller set of people with disabilities.”

"People will change their whole body language, their whole approach, when they think they're dealing with a frail person," Van Norman says. "And for many people, frailty is automatically associated with old age. I consult with several retirement communities, and sometimes I just sit down unannounced in a reception area and observe how some of the older residents are treated by younger people. They often take a very condescending attitude and will kneel down next to the older person and say something like, 'Did we have a nice piece of cherry pie at dinner tonight?' They probably feel they're being compassionate, but this behavior sends a clear message to the person that you see them as old, frail, and maybe a little pitiable."

Physically, Van Norman notes, research findings dating back nearly 20 years have confirmed the ability of people to prevent and even reverse physical frailty with vigorous strength training. "Our bodies are very resilient, but people don't behave that way. Part of the reason is that they have low expectations about themselves, precisely because they see a reflection of themselves in the eyes of other people that looks like a frail and physical declining person.

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"It's like reality is being distorted by this filter of expectations that sets a really low bar for what older people can become and accomplish," she says. "This lens of expectation has a powerful effect on how we view older people. If you want to change that, you've got to change that filter."