Is Aging the Problem? Or Ageism?

Fall 2013 011Recently I was asked to write about the “why” of my efforts on A is for Aging—for activist Ashton Applewhite’s blog “This Chair Rocks.” It was a very personal post, not a picture book review, but I hope my reflections may shed some light on the personal cost of internalizing negative age stereotypes.

The text below does contain some changes from the original post at This Chair Rocks:

Sadly, my mother’s doom and gloom warnings about growing older began somewhere in my teens. “Look, look at how the skin on my hand no longer bounces back,” she said, demonstrating with a tiny pinch, and a grimace.

On my own hand I often wear a lovely silver ring from Denmark that Mom gave me after wearing it for many years. She passed it on with a comment that could tarnish it if I let it. “Wear it now, before your hands get old.”

By the time I hit 45, Mom was 70, and several times I’d caught her muttering at herself in the mirror. “Ugly old woman”—she’d say disgustedly, while squeezing her chin. I’m not making this up. This was in imitation of her own mother she later confessed.

Writing this I still feel the shock of realizing just how much ageism in our culture had warped my mom’s view of herself. In reality, in her mid 70’s she was a strong, handsome woman who drew people in with her curiosity and vivaciousness. She had a loving family, many friends, and volunteer work of great responsibility and interest to her.

From My Teacher by James Ransome

From My Teacher by James Ransome

And the woman who would never set foot in a nursing home out of fear and loathing? She learned late in life, after a move to assisted living, and even in illness, that she not only enjoyed her days, but captured the love of adoring new friends—of all ages.

Grandmama's Pride by Becky Birtha

Grandmama’s Pride by Becky Birtha

Where did my mom learn to loathe her own aging body and to fear the future? Was it her mom’s fault? Or could it be the Western culture they both grew up in? Fortunately, somewhere between Mom’s dire warnings and my own aging past mid-life, I learned to see the beauty of older bodies, and also into the steel within.

The Hello Goodbye Window by Norton Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka

The Hello Goodbye Window by Norman Juster;Chris Raschka

In addition, I’ve learned that negative stereotypes of age bombard us from our earliest years, setting the stage for how we will feel about ourselves as we age. We take them in from many sources, we apply them to others, and eventually we must apply them to ourselves. Talk about divine retribution!

Psychologist Sheree Kwong See of the University of Alberta has observed that kids pick up negative age stereotypes in movies, cartoons, their interactions with people, and even their own storybooks.

Miss Rumphius

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Unfortunately, skewed images of physical and cognitive decline then dominate their views of growing older. Kwong See adds, “They use their beliefs and stereotypes to try to make sense of the situation…Not only do they report these beliefs about older people on questionnaires, but they use them to guide their behavior.”


And as activist Ashton Applewhite has written—it is ageism that creates the pictures of ugliness and hopelessness around normal aging, and blinds us to what we gain as we grow older.

Researcher Sheree Kwong See observes the seeds of ageism being planted in children as young as toddlers, and recommends that advocacy start early.

“Right from the very beginning we need to show realistic images of older people. If we want people to rely less on stereotypes, we need to show them the exceptions;”

My Hippie Grandmother

My Hippie Grandmother by Reeve Lindbergh; Abby Carter

I say, let’s nip ageism in the bud. Children need to see the more accurate heterogeneity of older adults. My own anti-ageism efforts promote more diverse and positive images of growing older in children’s picture books. All kids deserve to anticipate their future, even their future decades from now, with pleasure.

Click here for an article about research by Sheree Kwong See on ageism in young children. And more here and in the Edmonton Sun.

All the book images shown in this post I consider Positive Aging picture books. For information on these and others please go to my Resource Page.

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Many thanks to Ashton Applewhite for the guest post opportunity! Check out her other  Q & A blog “Yo, is this Ageist?”

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2 Responses to Is Aging the Problem? Or Ageism?

  1. Sue Nichols says:

    I watched my mom do the same thing — and she really is beautiful. I’ve decided it’s such a waste of time. Of course it’s disappointing in some ways to have conventional beauty slip away. However, I’m banking on my sparkling personality and great cooking to carry me through. Bottom line — we can’t really change this, and giving in just isn’t any fun! Thanks for framing it so beautifully.

    • lindseymcd says:

      Thank you for your lovely comment Sue–I absolutely agree that its not easy to watch what we see in the mirror change, moving away from what society tells us is beautiful. But I’m hoping we can all look deeper and remind ourselves and those we care about of the strengths and gifts we gain with experience. Most definitely personality and cooking count!

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