Opinion Ageism is one form of bigotry that never seems to get old

(Chanelle Nibbelink for The Washington Post)
4 min

For decades, living in the United States as a relatively healthy White Protestant man isolated me from the bigotry — as well as the benefits (i.e., programs and services) — reserved for minorities or members of special interest groups.

Eventually, though, something happened that landed me in a special interest category: I woke up one day to find myself “old.” Things changed. I was flooded with mail from Medicare, Social Security, private insurers and other businesses targeting me with offers, alerts and warnings. My digital feeds cautioned me to avoid “senior citizen scams” and offered endless services to enhance my “golden years.” Those developments were mostly positive, if sometimes annoying.

But then came the negatives, especially in the past couple of years, when I arrived in my mid-60s. I sometimes notice younger people in social settings looking past me or through me, as though I’m almost invisible. Clerks and servers ask more often whether I’m eligible for senior discounts — a savings, for sure, but sometimes they apply it automatically. Ouch. People meeting me for the first time will sometimes casually inquire, “So, are you retired?” Why would you assume that?

Because of my online Post photo — which I try to keep current — it has become increasingly common for people annoyed by my views to respond not by addressing the merits, but by simply calling me an “old White guy,” as if that made their point. Just recently, a reader emailed and referred to me as “an elderly White boy.” Elderly? Yikes.

In fact, I’m thrilled to be the age I am. I’ve never enjoyed life more. Society’s change in attitude toward me — based strictly on the passage of time — is noticeable and striking, but not too personally disturbing. I’m glad I was young when I was and not now; I worry about my children and grandchildren navigating their way through this contentious world.

Guest Opinion: Please do not put a party hat on my head — and other indignities of old age

I realize that while I’m more fortunate than many — still able to pursue a career and enjoy a rewarding life with loving family and friends — in too many cases, the United States, compared with other cultures, holds its aging population in contempt. Too often, “old people” here are regarded as useless, helpless or a nuisance, left to wind down the clock as they stare out the window, a lifetime of experiences, work, achievement and sacrifice forgotten.

While we rightly ostracize, deplatform or even “cancel” people for their racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, homophobia and other prejudices, ageism is openly practiced, and ageist stereotypes thrive. Examples in the news abound. A TV crime story from April involving a 74-year-old North Carolina woman reported that “a grandmother” was the victim of a carjacking and also referred to her as “elderly.” In a more tragic case, ABC News recently reported on the fatal stabbing of an Atlanta woman whom it pegged as a “77-year-old grandmother.”

Both women most likely adored their grandchildren, but in neither case were those offspring part of the story. Maybe these women could have been defined by other, more pertinent life achievements. But because they were over a certain age and apparently their children had borne children, their status as “grandmothers” became their primary identifier.

Many of the most common insults leveled against President Biden are age-related. Granted, as president his mental acuity will be scrutinized, as was that of other older presidents such as Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan. But the mocking tone underscoring many of the jokes and memes is nothing short of cruel.

How should we respectfully refer to old people? I’ve seen people 60-plus still refer to themselves as “middle aged,” but let’s be a little more realistic and cut that off at least by 59. The word “old,” however, is such a pejorative that it should not be used alone. “Older person” is preferable. I hesitate to use “elderly” at all, which implies not just old age but a feeble condition. I’ve always despised “senior citizen” and references to the “golden years.” How ‘bout “best people ever?” That’s good.

But more important than terminology is how we regard older Americans in general. We should all be able to take a good-natured joke, whether about our age, our appearance, our background or our beliefs. But the rampant practice of ageist bigotry should join all the other “isms” and “phobias” as unacceptable, especially when it crosses the line from friendly ribbing to cruel attacks.

I’m going to add that to my list of causes. Right now, though, this 66-year-old grandfather is going to hit the couch for an afternoon nap — an “old person” stereotype I happily embrace.