Every time I hear a story about a woman who lost her job in her 60s, despite being a high-performer, I ask myself, “why the heck is ageism the last acceptable ism?” Why is it that almost every other group is protected (at least in theory) from discrimination, but, older adults are treated like disposable objects by companies around the world? Join Dr. Bill Thomas and I as we discuss ageism… and what to do about it.
My guest today is Dr. Bill Thomas who is a medical doctor, speaker, farmer and a thinker. He works hard toward changing the conversation about aging and elder care. Dr. Bill, I would like to welcome you to the show.
Thanks for having me, Margaret.
You are a geriatrician by profession, which makes you a specialist in this area. What’s really interesting though is your innovative way of thinking about the aging population. So, thank you for coming and talking with us.
I’m happy to be with you.
The Sixty and Me community has reached about 500 000 women all around the world, and aging is a topic we often talk about.
What I love about your work is that you’re trying to look at the stereotypes at a foundational level. We’re working our way through racism and sexism, but it seems like ageism is the one ‘-ism’ that is sticking. Why do you think that is?
I think the trap that aging has fallen into is that the culture narrative creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, when the narrative you are immersed in says aging is about decline, and you experience anything that is related to decline, it reinforces the aging stereotype.
The argument that I make is not that aging has nothing to do with decline. In fact, decline is an element, a dimension of aging. What I argue is that decline is only one dimension. Aging offers us many other dimensions, many other ways of experiencing life, not simply through decline. Dominantly, it’s a growth oriented activity.
I think ageism is going to be the odd ‘-ism’ out until we can get the narrative lined up in such a way that we are free of this self-fulfilling prophecy.
We talk a lot about stereotypes at Sixty and Me. I believe they are the sister of ageism. They place uncalled for expectations on people when they get to a certain age. I know you have some great thoughts about how people are perceived as they get older and how unfair that is.
There’s a powerful psychological concept called priming which operates by sending messages about different parts of our life. It could be that older people are forgetful or older people are feeble. If those messages come our way, we humans tend to then interpret our experience in light of that information.
The beautiful thing about priming though is that it is value neutral. If you get messages that say aging is about beauty and energy and love, then your brain will work based on that information.
How do we, in our day-to-day lives actually do that?
One of the most powerful tools for breaking free of ageism is the mirror. It’s an exercise you can do at home. Go into a bathroom and lock the door if you want to. Stand in front of the mirror, look at your face, and embrace and enjoy and value and treasure your face just like it is.
When you get thoughts like, “Oh geez, I’ve got a wrinkle here.” Just say, “That is a freaking awesome wrinkle! I love that wrinkle.”
Do the same with your hair and face and any other part of your body. Just say, “I’m looking exactly how I should look today at this age.” The first place we have to chase this age status out of is our own head. Then we can get busy chasing it out of society.
The mirror suggestion is really good. I actually practice it quite often. It’s kind of like Buddhist meditation where you let go of each negative thought that comes your way. Look at the wrinkle and let it go.
However, when you get out into the world, and you feel like you are being ignored and stereotyped, how do you deal with that? This has happened to me. People have totally ignored me, as if they don’t even see me, while standing in a queue, and I’ve had to say, “Excuse me, am I invisible?”
The best strategy you can adopt—and there are many people who are out there already fighting this fight—is to break free of this notion that older people are supposed to be quiet and unobtrusive, grateful and noble in their self-sacrifice.
Older people can be all that, but they can also stand up and say, “Hey, right here. I am right here. Look at me. I am right here, let’s talk.” If you want to invalidate the stereotype you have to challenge it. You have to be willing to call it out.
There’s an interesting bit of history around this about the Pullman Porters who were an important part of the railroad industry. There was a guy called George Pullman who started a luxury railcar service and hired African American men to work there.
Unfortunately, this was in the early 20th century, and it was the pattern of the day to call all these African American men by the name George, because of the guy who owned the company.
Beautiful oral histories talk about these very talented African American men saying, “You can’t call me George. My name is….” This is a real example of taking a risk: standing up to wealthy white customers in those days.
These African American men not only did really beautiful work all those years ago, they are also an example for us older men and women to say, “I am a person. I am a human. I am standing right here. My name is not George.” It’s time for us to stand up.
Your story had me thinking about a large part of the women in our community. They are not the passive, sweet little old ladies that you think they would be. They are out there, participating in the world.
Yet when it comes to speaking out – because part of our conditioning of being born in the 50s is that women must be quiet – they don’t say anything. It’s not that we don’t feel it, it’s that we sometimes don’t have the mechanism or the voice to express it.
I am doing a theatre production on tour called, Life’s Most Dangerous Game. With it, I try to teach older people that there has never been a better time for us to live dangerously than right now.
What are they going to do? Are they going to put this on your permanent record? That threat doesn’t work on us anymore.
You are right; in a way, we are free from that. I know you talk about this transition from adult into after-adult. You say that we are more than adults now.
In our culture, if an adult sees a child misbehaving, it’s okay for the adult to correct the child. When we are elders, and we see adults misbehaving, we can mention that.
All women who are watching us now or reading the interview transcript, if you want some practice speaking out, Bill does an amazing road show, called The Changing Aging Tour 2017.
He did it last year, too, going all around the United States. There are 35 cities planned in this year’s tour. Each event begins with Bill getting up on stage and doing his thing with music and performance and theatre. Then I bet you give people a chance to talk, am I right?
Oh, yeah, and that’s the best part of the whole event. Everyone really enjoys that part, and I think it raises people’s consciousness. I think two things happen:
Number one, when you show up at one of our shows you realize, “Hey, wait a minute! There are other people in my community who think just like I do.”
Number two, it’s so great so see a message that validates aging from the stage. I have a great time doing it.
I bet you do. As a geriatrician, you understand aging both from an academic and a real-life perspective, and I think that makes you special.
The most important thing I’ve ever learned about aging is that it is many things to many people. I’ve always tried to do my best to honor different people’s perspectives.
The one place where I draw a line is stereotyped narratives that equate aging with decline. I’m really not tolerant of that. There are a lot of ways to enter into your elderhood, and I don’t think I know the way, but I will definitely fight hard against ageist prejudice.
Thank you for all your support in this fight. You know, a lot of the problems with ageism wouldn’t happen if we didn’t age. In your opinion, why do we age?
The biological perspective is this: Human beings are mammals. Probably 400 million years ago, mammals made a deal to acquire this hot-blooded, fast metabolism that required genetic tradeoffs to maximize vigor early in the life phase without much attention to after-reproductive maturity.
So, being mammals, aging is written into our DNA and has been for 400 million years. It’s a part of who we are. The miracle about humans is how well we age. We age better than any other mammal on earth.
There’s a book by James Hillman that I’ve mentioned in the Sixty and Me community before. He says that the reason we live past reproductive years, especially for women, is to build character.
I think that is so true. The reason we are good at aging is because it’s valuable. If you look at the trait of aging, us humans have received this massive bonus after reproductive maturity. Why does that happen?
In evolutionary terms, that doesn’t happen for no reason. It happens because older humans have unique value to the group. How that value is expressed is largely through character, and character takes a long time to develop.
You can probably take Hillman’s argument, tie it to evolutionary biology and say, “When you wake up in the morning one day older, you’re fulfilling a destiny. You are travelling a path of utmost secret dimensions.”
I really am happy about that last bit of discussion, because I think it will give women a sense of value. Regardless of ageism or what anyone else thinks about us, we just have to take our lives in our hands and make every second count.
The option of not making every second count is available, if you would like it. You are totally free to waste your 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s; that’s a choice. But really, the math says that this is the time to live like you’ve never lived before.
I agree with you 1000%. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. I hope your US tour goes well, and we’d be happy to have you on a Europe tour.
You bet. See you soon.
What are your thoughts about active living in past your 60s? Do you enjoy breaking down the walls of ageism? Have you got any interesting experiences to share? Please join the conversation!
Tags Getting Older