Ellen Langer: Combating ageism

Among other things, I've researched and written about aging for the past thirty years. My belief is that much of what we attribute to the aging process can be prevented or reversed and that a major culprit in unsuccessful aging is our condescending attitude toward older adults.

Of course we mean no harm - especially when we're dealing with beloved family members - but harm we do. They are probably the ones we hurt the most, in fact. Ageism is so deeply ingrained in our beliefs that we think we are simply responding to real, age-related incompetence. Instead, we are letting our mindless expectations create the very incompetence we perceive.

At age 89 my father's memory was fragile - he was showing his years. One day we were playing cards and I began to think that I should let him win. I soon realized that, if I saw someone else behaving that way, I'd tell her to stop being so condescending. I might even explain how negative prophecies come to be fulfilled, and I'd go on to explain that much of what we take to be memory loss has other explanations. For instance, as our values change with age, we often don't care about certain things to the degree we used to, and we therefore don't pay much attention to them anymore. The “memory problems” of the elderly are often simply due to the fact that they haven’t noted something that they find rather uninteresting. And then, while I was weighing whether to treat him as a child because part of me still felt that he would enjoy winning, he put his cards down and declared that he had gin.

Ellen Langer is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard. The first chapter of her latest book Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility is available to read on her website.

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