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August 01, 2018 Why does Ageism matter?

Focus on Ageism

Liz Milner

Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
— Matthew 7:1-5 KJV

“Physician, heal thyself”
- Luke 4:23, KJV

Editing BIFOCAL has led me to realize how deeply ingrained ageism is in my world view. I write as someone who cringes at the evidences of age that I see reflected in the mirror and in photographs.

How can a person who finds herself so deeply steeped in ageism be of service to older Americans?

The first step is obvious: Before attempting to correct others, make sure that you aren’t guilty of the same faults. So, in this issue of BIFOCAL, I’m taking some space to explore the challenges of Ageism, rather than Age itself because Ageism can warp a caregiver’s perspective and cause them to interact with a client in ways that are unhelpful, humiliating and sometimes deadly.

Why does ageism matter? Here’s an example from my own experience. When my Mother was in her late ‘80s she began to have falls, which led to her being hospitalized. In the hospital she began to suffer from paranoia. The black and blue marks on her hands were not due to the installation of IV lines, she confided. She was a drop for foreign spies who embedded microfiches under her skin. My Mom’s doctors said that the falls and the delusions were all part of ageing. My Mom entered a “revolving door” state where she was constantly falling, constantly hospitalized and then released.

This continued until the ambulance drivers brought my Mom to the wrong hospital and she was admitted. I was outraged, not only was the hospital less well regarded than the one she usually went to, but none of her doctors had visiting privileges. After a talk with the doctor my Mom had been assigned to at the “wrong” hospital, my outrage was transformed into hope. The doctor said that “old age” was not a legitimate diagnosis and tweaked my Mom’s medications. Within weeks, my Mom was back to her normal self. Without the lucky break provided by the wayward ambulance crew, my Mom might have continued in her downward spiral until she died. The ageist assumptions of her regular doctors nearly killed her.

Since so much of the Commission’s work is devoted to repairing the ravages of ageism, not age, I’m devoting space to two bodies of work that provide antidotes to the ageist assumptions that have become rampant in our culture. First, there’s a review of Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s book, Ending Ageism or How Not to Shoot Older People, which gives a detailed overview of the problem and then an interview with Canadian photographer, Beryl Woodrow, whose photos upend ageist stereotypes.