Can We Agree to Stop Referring to Our Future Selves as “The Elderly”?

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. — Benjamin Lee Whorf

Sandbox, Conservatory Water, Central Park, New York, NY

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Headlines are filled with words and feelings that trigger implicit bias. Words from these headlines ultimately fill our heads and show up on our brows. But, when a frown delineates how we express explicit bias and other forms of “othering” outgroups, such treatment is perceived to be to our “advantage.” However, by practicing this shortsighted approach, we end up shortchanging our collective self, and our future self.

Let’s look at a few recent headlines that reference two subjects, coronavirus and older adults:

  • #CoronavirusKindness: Volunteers offer support to the elderly during outbreak — Sky News, March 16, 2020
  • Coronavirus is mysteriously sparing kids and killing the elderly. Understanding why may help defeat the virus. — Washington Post, March 10, 2020
  • How safe is visiting the elderly amid coronavirus spread — CNN, March 16, 2020
  • COVID-19: 4 tips to help the elderly stay connected — World Economic Forum, March 13, 2020

These headlines, each specifying “the elderly,” serve as object lessons as to how we objectify others, today, as well as our self, tomorrow. And, not to put too fine (and sharp) a point on it, objectification occurs when we treat another person like a thing or an object, instead of as a person and a subject.

We worry about exposure to coronavirus. Even subtle exposure to objectifying language may be debilitating as it may prime bias against others, and against our future self.

Adrienne Ione helps here, in The Objectification of Our Aging Population. She notes:

“By saying ‘the elderly,’ we are reducing defining features and valuable contributions of members of our community to singular stereotyped anecdotal evidence. ‘The’ suggests a devaluing of humanness or a perception of less than. Use of the word ‘the’ is paramount to maintaining the age binary: young/old. Yet, this concept of binary is ill-informed.”

The Solutions Journalism Network helps, too. Reporters “train and connect journalists to cover what’s missing in today’s news: how people are responding to problems.” Part of the solution is to stop preemptively the problem inherent in debilitating ageist language used in media.

“[Do not] trim a life to fit the frame.” — James Hillman, The Soul’s Code

Coming to Terms with Terms, and With Our Future Self

Implicit and explicit bias are delivered daily in the form of ageism and discounts society, older adults, and our future self. Even ambivalent ageism — for example, “4 tips to help the elderly stay connected” and “Volunteers offer support to the elderly during outbreak” — debilitates our full potential.

Ageism doesn’t have an expiration date, instead it imposes an expiration date on society when it “shorts” seniors over going long on longevity. Ageism affects each of us — especially as we enter the last third of our lives, full of knowledge and know-how.

The sad fact is, to those who are ageist, the term “senior discount” is redundant as they have already considered seniors as discounted. To make matters worse, some ageist people feel that the term “elder abuse” is also redundant because abuse, or abuti, in Italian, means “used up,” and they believe elders are already used up, or are of no use, at least to them.

Ageism exists and persists when we fail to consider society and self through the lens of humanity; when we objectify others; when we segregate and isolate others; and when we, in the face of injustice, step away from responsibility by focusing on others as distant from ourselves. In other words, when we deliberately turn a blind eye and do nothing but distance our self.

Social Distance

In the time of coronavirus, we practice physical social distance by keeping three feet or, better, six feet away from people during those moments we cannot shelter at home, or be #OneWithNatureNow.

Yet, viewed through the lens of ageism, we already practice social distance. Throughout our life course, people try to gain chronological and cognitive social distance from older adults — 30- or 60-years our senior, for example.

In The Language of Ageism: Why We Need to Use Words Carefully, Tracey L. Gendron and colleagues note:

“…social distance represents the distinction between one’s own and others’ group identities. The concept of social distance has since been expanded to include the difference between the self and other and unfamiliarity with others.”

America’s public-health triumph of the 20th Century gained us an additional 30 years, added to our lives. Our longevity dividend must unite us, not divide us. To benefit fully from our longevity dividend, we must explore creative solutions to engage older adults into our social and economic fabric more, while protecting those of us who are already experiencing ageism as we enter our new old age.

Your Future Self/Our Future Self

Gendron and colleagues weigh in:

“When younger people, paradoxically, discriminate against their future selves, we see a unique form of discrimination. With ageism we are perpetuating a discriminatory pattern in which the perpetrator (ingroup) will transition to the victimized category (outgroup).”

Social justice is not about just one cause or just another. It’s inclusive and embracing, coming full circle to become whole, even holy — for society, and here, for our future self.

We achieve “ageless equity” (my term) when the scales of justice balance the promise of our rising generations with our promise to those upon whose shoulders they stand.

Delving deeply in to ageless equity is critical to addressing ageism, the prospect of our future, and every day we live along the way. Naturally, ageless equity also doesn’t have an expiration date; it involves our inter-regulation and self-regulation through our life course — and far beyond, as we live on through our legacy, though rising generations.

“Seniors” may be 81, or 18. Ageism starts early and its effects are debilitating, cumulative, and compounded by the intersectionality with other forms of discrimination and disadvantage. For those whose lives have been defined by the sexism they suffer, no comfort is found in the gender-neutral definitive article “the.”

Ageism impacts us today, and each day all along the way.

Pragmatic Prospection: How and Why People Think About the Future, helps here. Baumeister and colleagues note, “Our theory of pragmatic prospection holds that people think about the future so as to guide actions to bring about desirable outcomes.” The authors emphasize,

“…the future can have causal force in the present, thus constituting a form of teleological causation. We do not assume that causality extends backward in time in any physical sense. Rather, brains living in a cultural society can represent the future and use those mental representations to guide current action. The pathway back from the future to the present depends on meaning, not physical events, and so pragmatic prospection emphasizes the highly meaningful aspect of contemplating the future.”

Humanity 101, to one-to-one

Martin Buber, was an early 20th Century Jewish theologian who wrote “I and Thou” (Ich und Du). Buber tells us that “primary words” are not isolated words, but combined words. The word pair “I-It” implies and “I” with “It” considered as an object that is separate, and object that “I” experiences or uses. The word-pair “I-Thou” implies a relationship, which is the basis of our interdependence, and that of humanity, worldwide.

Along our shared path, transformation is best achieved when there are transitions, in formation. Never before in history (which is a social construct, along with ageism), has society been provided with such a transformative time with elders. Not “by elders,” which primes a sense of independence, and disregard; not “for elders,” which may suggest patronizing dependency; but with elders, throughout our life course, our journeys. It’s about time.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, explained the two journeys of humankind— to journey from, and to journey towards. As in the journey from Egypt versus the journey towards Canaan. The journey away is usually easier. For all of us, it is usually easy to flee from a threat or a problem. Whatever gets us away is a type of “success.” Journeying towards something is much harder. Journeying towards requires imagining a goal, imagining a future, then working towards it. Journeying towards often requires much more self-awareness, time, and effort.

During the coronavirus pandemic, our social, physical, and emotional distance will be fully successful when we journey toward a future that unites each of us and unites our present-future self, now.

Together, along our journey we will craft to a new normal — not a 101 relationship that implies a zero-sum game, but a one-to-one relationship that co-creates mutual gain to signal a collective change. This achievement is expressed by Cristina Bicchieri in Norms in the Wild:

“Norm creation and norm abandonment thus share common features: people must face a collective action problem, they must have shared reasons to change, their social expectations must collectively change, and their actions have to be coordinated. There are, however, important differences between norm creation and norm abandonment. To create a social norm, normative expectations must be created first, and empirical expectations will follow. To abandon a social norm instead, empirical expectations have to change first, and change in normative expectations will follow.”

“I remember a children’s book about persons who built a fence or a wall around themselves and later discovered that they could take the same material and make a bridge.” — Derrell R. Watkins, Practical Theology for Aging

Our Future is in Our Hands

To reduce coronavirus contamination, hand washing is vital. As with any new routine, it takes practice. What is helpful is to have hand-washing part of our daily practice — an ablution, with society cradled in compassion in action. More than ever, our hands achieve agency, symbolize interdependence, and grant a gesture (maybe a mudra) to humanity.

Take time for this intentional act as one of purification and prayer, of your choice. As one option, singing “Happy Birthday” twice works well — especially when the adjective “dear” is followed by the name of one of your grandparents, parents, or someone else you love. As an act of #MicroCompassion, after, give your loved ones a call, write a letter, or say a short prayer for their happiness, wherever they may be.

There is good reason that the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf on linguistic relativity has gained renewed favor and application. His legacy lives on.

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”

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