The media keep us well supplied with tales of derring-do by high achieving elders. Former President George H.W. Bush skydives every five years, most recently on his 90th birthday. An 80-year-old Japanese man becomes the oldest to climb Mt. Everest.
Other elders are hailed for bungee jumping, finishing marathons, deep sea diving, snow boarding, weight lifting and so on, all at great ages.
Occasionally, some are extolled for writing a book or earning a degree or recording a music album but nothing gets media attention like old people taking on the physical challenges usually reserved for 20- or 30-somethings.
This week's chapter comes to us from Australia, a country that is a lot like the United States except they have a much better sense of humor about themselves than Americans who actually have zero sense of humor about themselves. But that's a story for another day.
In reporting about 100-year-old dancer, choreographer and costumer, Eileen Kramer, the Australian Ageing Agenda begins by pointing out the false stereotypes of age while noting the apparent irony that one of the most common responses to Ms. Kramer's story is surprise at what she can do at her age: “Wow if that’s what growing old is about, I can look forward to it.”
”An interesting remark,” the story continues, “because so many of us are fearful about ageing and there are good reasons for this"
“In 2015 we treasure our children and venerate beauty but have scant regard for elders. Research into negative stereotypes has shown that society’s poor opinions about ageing has (sic) negative impacts, not just on elders but on society itself."
“The answer to these problems lies in shifting our attitudes and it’s so easy to do.”Well, maybe the answer is “easy” if you promote the fantasy that being old is exactly like being 35. But the actual result is that you are simultaneously shaming the majority of old people.
Yes, shaming less accomplished elders is what is really going on with the glorification of the few high achievers of advanced age who are lucky enough to remain unusually healthy or capable. And it IS luck.
Anyone who is 70 or 80 or 90 or more and wants to jump out of airplanes, climb mountains, run marathons or, like Eileen Kramer, continue to perform at 100, go for it. Everyone should follow his or her personal bliss whatever their age.
The problem is not with those ultra-active elders, it is with stories like this one that pay lip service to the widespread disrespect of worn-out stereotypes but hold up extreme elders as supposed inspiration, implying that the rest of us are slackers for not keeping up.
When that happens, they are employing reverse ageism. Old is a wonderful time, they are telling us, as long as you can (still) dance and run and ski and pretend to be young.
This repeated trope is not doing old people any favors.