COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PAUL DOWNEY

We all aspire to grow old, right?

One of life’s universal truths is that we all aspire to grow old.

From a practical standpoint, what does that mean? Most of us really don’t know what it is like to “walk in the shoes” of an older adult.

I have spent the past 20 years as an advocate for seniors and thought, based on my experience, I had a clue about what it was like to age -- that is, until I participated in a workshop called “Trading Ages,” sponsored by the SCAN Health Plan, Scripps Health and Serving Seniors.

The workshop brought together staff aides from elected officials to help sensitize them about the physical and psychological impacts of aging.

Our instructor for the day, gerontologist Jacque Lauder, started with a question: “Who is going to be younger tomorrow than they are today? You either get older or you get dead.”

This definitely got our attention.

Jacque then showed us a series of photographs of older adults. One was of an active body builder in her 80s and another was of an older couple in a church. She asked us to interpret what was going on.

Most thought the couple in the church was attending a funeral.

“They are in their 80s and getting married,” Jacque said. “Why? He said because he loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.”

Next, we were each given five strips of paper and asked to write down one thing important to us on each piece. We were told to hold them over our heads.

Jacque then went around the room and, almost gleefully, ripped the strips from our hands and threw them on the floor. I lost “health” and “independence” but still had “family,” “mental acuity” and “house.”

Some lost all their slips.

There was a collective sense of outrage at the randomness and total disrespect for things we each cherished. Jacque represented real life and those in the room didn’t like it.

“How did it feel?” she asked. “There are people who lose these things in a short period of time for real. Think about this when you communicate with an older person.”

Jacque then asked us to open bags placed in front of us and pull out an “infirmity.” Mine was a stroke, which required me to have my left arm bound behind my back.

Over the next 45 minutes, I had to add earplugs to mimic loss of hearing and yellow glasses that distorted my vision. We were instructed to perform a series of seemingly simple tasks, like eating a bag of potato chips and filling out a doctor’s form.

“Some older adults simply cannot see the wrinkles or stains in their clothing,” Jacque said. “They can’t see the things that shape other people’s perceptions about them. Someday, someone will be making the same assumptions about you.”

I cannot tell you what a relief it was to remove the binding from my arm, take out the earplugs and lose the glasses.

My “impairments” had been less than an hour and I knew all along I would be fully “cured” at the end of the workshop.

Importantly, despite all my “impairments,” none of my classmates pegged me as having deteriorated into feeblemindedness. The same consideration does not happen to older adults struggling with real impairments.

We all make assumptions about people based on how they look and their initial response to us. This is especially true with seniors.

Far too many people automatically assume all seniors have dementia because they see only gray or no hair, a few wrinkles, walkers, canes and hearing aids. The leap of logic one equates to the other is frightening.

Ageism, in all its insidious forms, is alive and well in this country. Want proof? How often do you see positive depictions of seniors on television or in the movies?

Older adults are most often portrayed as grumpy, rude, hard of hearing and able to say anything because no one pays much attention to them.

The sad part is that many of us are OK with these depictions.

We tolerate jokes that if given in a racial or gender context would cause outrage. I wish everyone could take the “Trading Ages” workshop. The shift in how we treat and interact with seniors would be monumental.

It would also put ageism on a par with racism and sexism as things to be abolished in a civil society.



Downey is president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty. Learn more at www.servingseniors.org.

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