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Yes, ageism exists in Yellow Springs

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Yellow Springs is a rapidly aging community — according to the 2010 Census, 20 percent of villagers are 65 and older, and more than half are over 45. While the country and state are aging as well, Yellow Springs is doing so faster, with our median age of 48.5 years a full 10 years older than the median state age.

Given this demographic, it seems relevant to ask: How does ageism affect older villagers? And do they see signs of ageist attitudes in Yellow Springs?

Recently eight villagers from the Senior Center’s Older and Bolder, a center discussion group, gathered to consider this question. Present were Lee Huntington, Fran LaSalle, Suzanne Patterson, Mary Morgan, Jan Griesinger, Sylvia Carter Denny, Andree Bognar and Yellow Springs Senior Center Director Karen Wolford. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, participants asked that their comments be anonymous.

Group participants emphasized that they appreciate living in Yellow Springs, and several felt uncomfortable even speaking of age as a negative thing.

“I’ll be 75 soon and I’m pretty excited,” one participant said. “I’m glad to be this age and doing all that I do. It feels like an achievement to have lived this long.”

Still, most agreed that while being old includes many pleasures — being able to do what you want, when you want, for instance — it also comes with challenges and hardships that younger people often do not understand. Because some people hold stereotypes of the old as less competent, ageism can mean being treated in a way that feels demeaning or disrespectful.

“I don’t advertise my age because I feel my credibility will be affected,” one participant said. “I want to be taken seriously, not patted on the head.”

And another stated that when she tells people her age, they sometimes respond, “you don’t look it.” While that comment is intended as a compliment, it can feel hurtful, with its assumption that there’s something wrong, as an old person, with looking one’s age.

And ageism is complex, all agreed. It means something different for everyone. For instance, some participants feel respected when others hold doors for them, and some feel disrespected.

“I’m pleased when someone opens a door, but I know some others are offended,” one person said.

Having people go out of their way to give up a seat or hold a door raises questions that can be uncomfortable, another said.

“I’m thinking, is this happening because of how I look, or is it just a courtesy?” another said. “But mostly I’m appreciative, especially when I see it happening for all ages.”

But a third participant felt strongly that having others rush to help feels demeaning.

“I like it when I can ask for help, but I don’t like being helped without being asked,” she said. “Give old people the courtesy of being asked. Stop helping the hell out of me.”

As befits a group of Yellow Springs residents, the Older and Bolder participants don’t always agree. While most felt that ageism is real and often hurtful, a few said they rarely feel its effects. But all agreed that it can be challenging to feel good about yourself as an old person in a society that worships youth.

For instance, several talked about the insulting tone of supposedly humorous birthday cards that mock aging, including cards for sale in local stores. And they all agreed that a continual challenge is dealing with the way people inadvertently talk down to elders.

Group members were put off that others have such a hard time just describing old people as “old,” as if it’s an insult. To avoid using the word “old,” others instead pick words deemed more positive, such as “elders” or “seniors.”

“Old is a four-letter word,” one woman said.

And more insidious is being the recipient of terms of endearment — “honey,” “sweetie” or “dearie” — from strangers, including store clerks or medical personnel.

“It feels like being petted on the head like a cat,” someone said.

Most participants said they struggle with how to deal with the demeaning nature of unwanted endearments, whether to take a stand and confront the situation, or let it pass by.

“Do I go into my song and dance while there’s a line of people waiting to check out behind me?” another said.

Adding to the complexity is that all agree those who use the offending language generally don’t mean to offend and in fact mean to be kind. But the language hurts regardless.

“One young woman told me she was taught to call old people that,” a participant said of a young local clerk who used unwanted endearments.

Several said they sometimes ask a nurse or clerk to simply use her first name. But to others, that’s still too familiar.

“Someone calling me by my first name feels like being talked down to,” one person said. “I want to be asked how I wish to be addressed. Each setting is nuanced.”

And while unappreciated terms of endearment may seem trivial, they are not, because they contribute to how old people feel about themselves. And those feelings can affect physical health, several said.

“We’re not just complaining or being grumpy. Elder speak can be dangerous,” said a participant, citing studies showing that the recovery time of older patients in hospitals is linked to how the patients feel about being old. And language used around patients contributes to their feelings of self-regard.

“We know what racism does to black people but we’re just beginning to understand what elder speak does to the old,” the participant said.

All in all, the effects of ageism are just beginning to be understood, they believe.

“Like all the other “isms,” it’s easy to peel layer after layer and still never get to the bottom of it,” one woman said.

And even more difficult, the women understand that sometimes ageism lives inside them. Women who came of age before the women’s movement were taught to be diffident, one woman said, and present themselves in a manner that can lead to being treated with disrespect.

“By our demeanor we can invite being overlooked,” one said. Another agreed, stating that, “We’ve internalized ageism just like we’ve internalized racism.”

Group members pointed out that they only represent one gender, and the experience of old men is likely different. But sometimes that difference seems unfair.

“When men get white hair, they attain status,” one said. “Old men become distinguished.”

In contrast, she said, “If I complain about something, I’m a crabby old woman.”

Ageism can be local
While Yellow Springs prides itself on its tolerance and respect for diversity, the village is not immune to the cultural tendency to treat people differently just because they’re older.

For instance, several described feeling ignored when in some local stores, while other, younger customers were given better service.

“Old is invisible. You get waited on last,” one woman said. “Yellow Springs is not free of that.”

And the local conversation about the need for the village to attract new young families to add to the income tax base can feel dismissive of the very real financial contributions that older villagers, who tend to own their own homes, pay for living here.

“The property tax here is incredible,” one said.

Villagers’ apparent preference for young faces over old is also reflected in the many front-page photos of children in the Yellow Springs News, several said, stating the newspaper frequently includes news about school events but only rarely does it focus on seniors.

One woman noted that the recent citizen committee that advised Village Council in the Village manager search did not include any older villagers, which felt like a slight, especially given the high number of senior citizens in the village.

And given the many seniors in town, several find it hard to understand why Village government doesn’t provide at least some financial support to the Senior Center, as is the practice in the municipalities of Fairborn, Beavercreek and Xenia.

Perhaps the most hurtful recent issue for older villagers was the local controversy over affordable senior apartments that Home, Inc. proposed to build on the former Barr property. The project — which many see as filling a significant need — stalled finally for lack of funding, but it also provoked sustained complaints from neighbors concerned about the loss of trees on the property and aesthetic issues.

Most of those trees came down recently during preparation for the new Barr property project, the Mills Park Hotel, and there was little outcry from neighbors, several said.

The different responses from neighbors to the two projects “was glaring to me,” said one woman. “It felt like a tremendous hit on seniors.”

Perhaps the most important thing for younger villagers to know about local elders is that it’s important not to generalize or stereotype based on age or appearance. Each old villager is a unique individual, just as is each middle-aged person, child or teen.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that in Yellow Springs spirited disagreement is often a part of the Older and Bolder meetings, but the group remains together regardless. And that is one of the pleasures of aging, several said — the vulnerabilities that come with age can lead to a heightened sense of community.

“Isn’t it amazing that after two years we’re still a group?” one woman said.


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