Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Age Defying

“I don’t get this whole age thing.” Shannon proclaimed at a recent dinner. She was referring to our obsession with and fear of aging. To prove her point, she challenged those present to admit their ages. “Let me start, I’m 62.” Next to her, I blurted 42. And most everyone shared how old they are, except for two women, one who looked like she was 18 (though is not unless banks had adolescent executives) and a retired woman who had earlier protested that “one does not ask such questions.”

While I agree with my friend that there should be no shame in admitting one’s age, fact of the matter is, there is stigma attached to growing old. It is thus understandable why many people would rather not be asked how old they are.

The buzz word for this is Ageism, which is no spring chicken itself but has only gained traction recently. The term was coined almost 40 years ago by gerontologist Robert Butler. Ageism is stereotyping and discrimination against older individuals due to their age. Butler defined it as a combination of prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age and the ageing process; discriminatory practices against older persons; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older women and men.

This is a cause for concern for more than 66 million Americans 55 years old and over (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006).

Ageism in America lists various types of discrimination suffered by mature individuals. First, personal, as exemplified in instances of exclusion based on stereotypic assumptions; physical abuse; and propagation of stereotypes. Second, institutional, as reflected in such practices as mandatory retirement; absence in clinical trials; and devaluation in cost-benefit analyses. Third, intentional, as evidenced by marketing and media that employ stereotypes; targeted financial scams; and denial of job training. Fourth, unintentional, as seen in the absence of emergency procedures to assist old and vulnerable persons living on their own; and the lack of built-environment considerations (ramps, elevators, handrails). Fifth and last is sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation and ageism deserves particular attention due to the insidiousness of double discrimination.

As Tina Gianoulis explains:

If straight seniors must struggle against becoming invisible as they age, gay elders have been almost non-existent in society's mirror. Since many queers who are reaching old age during the 2000s came of age well before the gay liberation movement, they may have spent much of their lives in the closet without the support of a visible community.

Those who have partners may find their relationships discounted and ignored as they get older. They may be separated from partners and placed at the mercy of unsympathetic family members or nursing home staffs. Little research has been done about the lives of these older gays, even though some researchers estimate that there are between 1.75 and 3.5 million gay men and lesbians over 65 in the United States.

Yet, because of the prejudices in the country against homosexuals of all ages and backgrounds, and the prevailing stereotype that older persons are “sexless,” older members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community have an exceptionally difficult time being accepted in society.

Federal law does not recognize the legality of same-sex marriages, and when one member of a same-sex relationship passes away the surviving partner loses significant financial ground. Partners in a same-sex marriage are denied Social Security benefits that married couples receive when one partner dies. By contrast with heterosexual married couples, they face heavy taxes on retirement plans and are subject to an estate tax if they inherit a home, even if it was jointly owned. As a result, same sex partners also risk losing their home when one partner enters a nursing home. While federal Medicaid law permits a married spouse to remain in the couple’s home, this does not hold true foraged same-sex partners.

Everyone should get this old age thing. After all, we all age whether we like it or not.

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