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Let’s cut out the ageism and the notion of getting ‘too old’ | READER COMMENTARY

Let’s cut out the ageism and the notion of getting ‘too old’ | READER COMMENTARY

As a gerontologist, I was dismayed and offended by the headline in The Baltimore Sun’s Life and Travel section, “Diamonds are forever: Senior softball program draws local players too stubborn to act their age” (April 21). This kind of statement that there is a right age for something or that people beyond a certain age are too old to do something is, in a word, ageist. Ageism is any kind of discrimination based on age, and this kind of discrimination is harmful to all of us. Words matter and seeing words like this affects how people feel about themselves and their worth to society. Words like these imply that older people should disengage from life and disconnect from the world or retire to the rocking chair on the porch.

Statements like these make many Americans fearful of growing older and fears about aging are actually harmful to your health. Becca Levy, a social scientist at the Yale School of Public Health, found that negative beliefs about growing older are associated with worse health and that the systemic ageism that leads to these headlines is the root cause of the association between age beliefs and health outcomes. Many people experience some type of physical decline as they age, but for the vast majority of older people those declines do not impair their ability to live independently and to pursue activities of their choosing. Older adults, like people of all ages, have a variety of abilities, interests and experiences.

One of the reasons for this fear is a cultural aversion to talking or thinking about death. Old age is associated with death because no one is getting out of this life alive and if you are fortunate enough to reach late life, statistically you are going to die sooner than someone who is younger. Yet getting on in years does not mean that you are already dead. Older people in U.S. society have to find purpose, socialization and activity in the context of changing realities. People living in “Blue Zones,” or those areas of the world with the greatest proportion of the most longest-lived have two social pieces in common — older people in those areas continue to contribute to society in a variety of ways and they are integrated into their communities.

Social isolation and loneliness — different but related concepts — received significant attention during the COVID-19 quarantines when some people were better equipped than others to remain connected when we had to stay at home. Social isolation is when someone lacks social belonging, engagement with others and has few social contacts. Loneliness occurs when people feel disconnected from others. It may result from social isolation, but people can also feel lonely when surrounded by others. The National Institutes of Aging reports that social isolation and loneliness are linked to physical health conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.  Rather than treating engaged, active older adults as stubborn, we should be grateful that they have found ways to be connected to each other and physically and socially engaged. Their connections are better for them and better for society as a whole.

Like many other places in the world, the population of Maryland is aging. In January of this year, Gov. Wes Moore signed an executive order establishing a Longevity Ready Maryland Initiative. Secretary of Aging Carmel Roques has begun to establish advisory groups across the state to implement this initiative. I hope that Longevity Ready Maryland builds infrastructure to address the mental health needs of older adults including the need for purpose and socialization. When activity and age-integration are seen as natural parts of living a good life, then maybe we can finally do away with headlines that treat active older adults as “stubborn” or abnormal for going out and having a good time.

— Nancy Kusmaul, Catonsville

The writer is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Add your voice: Respond to this piece or other Sun content by submitting your own letter.


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