It’s easy to look back and recognize fads or social issues decades after the fact. It’s harder to identify them in the moment. Maybe that’s why we’re not grasping an issue we’re struggling with today: the widespread marginalization of older people in American society. Ageism.
We live in an era where many barriers are being broken. Marriage equality and a more accepting attitude about gender fluidity are making life better for groups that were historically ignored or ill-treated. Paradoxically though, we look right past one of the largest minority groups: the 15% of our population who are 65 or older.
While some barriers crumble, ageism remains rampant. In fact, ageism, the systematic bias against older adults, is a defining trait of contemporary life.
How did we arrive at this point? Clean water, antibiotics and other modern advances have enabled people to live longer now than ever before. Many families now include four living generations, a rarity even 50 years ago. Even though more people are living longer, society hasn’t caught up to this new reality. Instead of marginalizing the oldest among us, we should focus on appreciating the resiliency and adaptability of older adults.
As a geriatrician and CEO of a comprehensive health care system, I’ve witnessed so many older adults who remain vibrant and engaged as they adjust to changing life circumstances and health status. Meet Dominga Marquez. Temporarily sidelined by a stroke, she developed adaptive techniques so she could continue crocheting hats, dolls and scarves—using only one hand! Next, Dominga became the catalyst for launching our Hand In Hand volunteer committee, where residents create and sell handicrafts and donate the proceeds to charity. Her creativity and determination to adapt is an inspiration to us all.
Older adults have a lot to offer. It is time we start affording them the recognition and respect they deserve. It is time to start valuing and embracing the oldest members of our society.