The strange stigma against getting older
“People have been underestimating me because of my age for decades and saying I should retire,” says Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the 104-year-old nun who went viral for her cheerleader-level antics while working as the chaplain for the Loyola University Chicago men’s basketball team. And not only is Schmidt still working as a chaplain, a role she’s held for 29 years, she just published her first book Wake Up with Purpose! What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years. And she’s certainly not ready to retire, a suggestion she finds funny. “Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I can’t do things,” she says. “I’ve lived this long because I do things I love.”
Schmidt’s not the only person to encounter these assumptions about getting older. There’s still a strange stigma around age – and we say ‘strange’ because the fact is that we’re all ageing from the second we’re born. There’s no escaping ageing except, well, dying. And nobody wants that.
Even though we’re all getting older (right now, this very minute!), somehow we never think we’ll be ‘old.’ As a result, ageism runs rampant in society, not to mention in the workplace. These ageist attitudes lead to an us-versus-them mentality (hello, baby boomers and millennials), which just continues the cycle of negativity.
How we talk about ageing affects how well we age
“Our perceptions of ageing and how we talk about it can directly impact our health and others’ health,” says geriatrician, Dr Scott Kaiser.
He explains how:
Psychologically: people with positive perceptions of ageing are more likely to live longer and thrive mentally.
Behaviourally: people choose to take better care of a body and mind that they love and plan on keeping for a long time.
Physically: an optimistic perception of aging leads to less stress and less inflammation in the body, which in turn leads to better heart health and a stronger immune system.
OK, so clearly the words we use to talk about ageing are important. But even if you’re respectful of older generations – discussing the topic of ageing with care and never using flat-out offensive terms – navigating this topic is still tricky. Just like with mental health etiquette, it’s not enough to know the etiquette rules and etiquette mistakes. You also need to be aware of polite habits most people dislike, including your choice of words. You may not realise it, but some of the ‘polite’ things you’re saying about ageing are actually rude.
We asked Dr Kaiser, along with belonging expert Ritu Bhasin and several folks over the age of 50, to share what they wish you wouldn’t say – and what to say instead.
Telling someone they’re attractive for their age
Equating youth with beauty (and ageing with ugliness) is one of society’s most prevalent and most damaging stereotypes, says Bhasin. “Telling someone they look ‘so young’ may be intended as a compliment, but it’s reinforcing the idea that you can only be beautiful if you look young,” she says. “People are beautiful at every age!”
It’s a concept Genevieve Chevalier, 58, understands well but still struggles with.
“People used to always tell me that I looked younger than I am, often remarking on my lack of wrinkles. At the time, I appreciated it, but as I got older and those compliments slowed down, it made me feel really bad about myself. I poured tons of money into anti-wrinkle creams and Botox, trying to hold on to the ‘looking younger than I am’ idea,” she says. “It really got me down. These past few years, I’ve stopped all that and made a conscious effort to love myself, wrinkles included. But it’s tough because I feel like it’s an uphill battle against society.”
Say this instead: “You look so beautiful and happy – you’re glowing!” The key, says Bhasin, is to avoid commenting on their physical appearance at all. “There are lots of ways to compliment people without bringing in their age, skin, weight or other physical attribute at all,” she says. If you want to compliment their appearance, praise them for something they can control, like a well-put-together outfit or an intricate hairdo.