The Golden Age of Ageism
Is the gravest issue of our times brashly overlooked?
Right now, a fresh wave of discrimination is assailing the elderly. Perhaps, a whole set of waves. Vying for prominence are deliberate discrimination and one out of apparent necessity. If you ignore, starve, persecute or let die the oldest of us — no question, you do it on purpose. But even with much nicer intentions, you might end up isolating them emotionally while trying to protect.
With a virus baying for mature blood in our midst, the most persuasive argument is that there isn’t much we can do about it.
Up until the pandemic hardened its grip, air was abuzz with pep talk and cheering on: sixty is the new forty, grey is the new green, age is but a numeral illusion. One wouldn’t be surprised if it was all hatched in a capitalist thought-chamber with a view to boost consumption by keeping alive some long-going flames with enough purchasing power.
That may not be so bad in and of itself, as long as people are prepared to slow down as they should at a certain stage of life. It isn’t that great to have a population told never to really grow old as society by very nature is semi-blind and slyly, selectively amnesic. In a world driven by triage and filters, the put-on aura of fit-and-fine would mislead it to be lax about seniors who don’t see themselves so. And the higher the resistance to let go the delusion of youthfulness, the more deeply felt would be the disappointment.
So, it helps to look and sound one’s age. But that’s not even the starting point.
There is a problem — but how big?
In the degree of misery that the elderly endure, there is a definite variance. Social policies and amenities differ among nations, and so does the access to physico-medical help. Most of the Third World hasn’t fully warmed to the idea of well-managed senior care homes and, in countries like India, to be an inmate of one is often considered an option not just the least favoured, but the most dreaded. It’s a matter of much passionate sorrow to spend the twilight days with anyone other than own children, and moving out of the family amounts to virtual death.
Well, maybe it’s justified to feel cursed and wronged to those who have toiled a lifetime for the ones they thought would one day care for them.
Such disparities apart, the problem is universal. Not least because it emerges from the most intrinsic of human conditions. And the society recognizes, even while the action is lacking, that the seniors are physically vulnerable. But the less recognized part is how intensely human, how deeply conscious, how equally creative and able those individuals are.
To ignore their intellectual and emotional potential is sheer ageism: tacit, yet real.
Who owns the world?
The idea that the world belongs to the youth was largely true in times when the strongest and the burliest of the lot had to tackle beasts and bring home the kills. But how modern is this notion?
For all the advancements in science and medicine, somatic degeneration can be bridled only up to an point. But mental deterioration, as has been proven, happens at a rate far slower than the physical. If there has ever been a time to value brains over brawl, we are living it. When physical facilities can as such be replaced by the mechanical or the robotic, how relevant are the powers once calibrated one’s worth? The might of muscles may still have its place in sports and dating sites, but are they enough to sideline the wisest and the most experienced of us?
As Bernard Shaw lamented petting his jealous grizzled beard, youth is wasted on the young. Be that what it may, no human should be judged based on a property of one’s skin — be it dark, hairless, or wrinkled.
A quick primer on the Grandpa archetype
Then there is this supposition on certain attitudes that the elderly harbour. I’d call it ‘the prejudice on prejudices’. Some assume that the old perceive the world in ways so radically regressive. This notion is often picked up first-hand from a grumpy grandpa or a sanctimonious aunt. There will then be several decades before one finds oneself nagging own young relatives to their umbrage and discomfort.
What keeps alive this strange cycle?
It does take hard-won experience of real long years past middle age to be able to appreciate some facts of life, to digest a few painful truths, to understand how spending one’s early years differently might have a profound effect on later life. It’s equally natural for the youth not to pay heed, for nature wants to perpetuate certain faults. It wants some blunders repeated over and over. So, advice from the waning generations are bound to be met with impatience, even anger.
This however solidifies the conservative image of old folk. The prejudice then spills over to their intellectual capacities, attributing to cognitive decline the inability to appreciate the flux and ways of the progressive world.
In most cases, this would prove a grave error in perception, aggravated by the dizzying pace of technology. Here is your grandpa, too backward already to understand your values, now too dumb and technophobic to configure an app. Well, the gap in generational knowledge has been perennial — an earlier generation is fated always to stay relatively luddite. But the current divide is ever so vast and unmitigable, the demands mounting on us so exponentially that even the active youth of the day find themselves struggling to keep up. Objects invented to simplify lives end up being new problems to be cracked or contraptions with formidable learning curves.
Again, this too might be a matter of perception, but in effect a vast population do feel sidelined and flat out ignored in this variety of human advancement. The sources of reassurance have chosen to remain passive, sparing not a moment for the technologically disadvantaged.
There’s a party going on, sure, but the vast majority are made to wait far out at the locked-out gate striving to pick up an occasional scrap of music — from within they hear some roars and hurrahs, and nothing more.
Why we need a global senior-rights movement
With the youth busy making sense of the ever-changing world for fear of falling behind, the elderly are compelled to confine to themselves. Between the two, the gap in inflating. Besides compatible values, common interests too have begun to dwindle and disappear, leading to a pair of drifting islands each with own language, culture and style of living. And not so much of a vestige remains of those days when there existed cultural and religious fora that made communion and communication inevitable.
To be fair, all is not lost in senior health and physical care. But then, the elderly are looked after largely due to factors beyond a conscious appreciation of their true needs and worth. The systems handing insurance and social security have matured enough to function without the aide of emotion and empathy. During the pandemic, why has half the world shut itself off? To guard the vulnerable elderly, we hear. That’s a nice, feel-good story, but how about taking a second look?
Worldwide, the lock-downs are still being administered to minimise the burden on healthcare facilities. The word ‘burden’ is not some abstraction, but a declared, officially acclaimed cause. Benign as this may seem, it reflects an attitude — a grim detachment nurtured and bolstered by the commercialization of agony. Not a great deal of thought has gone into enhancing and up-scaling the facilities to handle a spike in load. Rather, what we see is an overemphasis on caging in the weakest. As always the older ones stand to lose. A lot, this time.
We are dealing here wit the frailest, quietest, and the most unorganized segment. The demands of age now receive far less attention than those of gender or race, even animal. That makes it the murkiest, harshest and the most underappreciated social problem.
And it necessitates senior-rights to be explicitly wrought into a solid movement with enough power to advance the cause.
Why not? Here’s a group that wouldn’t ever need to rely on vapid identities and cultural archetypes to get its woes blazoned. The misery is etched clean on every inch of their corporal being, their troubles palpable, present, intimately felt. If the aspects are anything to go by, you have a fine movement for your taking. Oppression is here, and prejudice, discrimination, negligence, callousness, at times even harassment and torture. Shocking, there hasn’t ever been a global movement for senior rights — there have been a few feeble parochial attempts like Grey Panthers, but right now it has no devout champions, no overt lobbying impetus.
Well, no wait is too long for a good change, and it is the defining need of the hour. Unlike other movements, here the rights aren’t predicated on historical wrongs to be righted but on tangible grounds. “Pay back!” should be the campaign slogan, categorical and unapologetic. The prospective patronage isn’t constricted as it has this unique attribute of an ever-shifting domain of beneficiaries. Those who approach it with a let-me-do-a-favor mindset should be taught how duty is different from charity.
Love and kindness are welcome but they ought to be accompanied by a constructive understanding of the cyclic, ceaseless-nature the problem.
Remember — everyone was, is, or will be there.