“There must be some mistake here”, the doctor declares as she looked at my chart. A bit alarmed, I asked her what was the problem.
“With this birthdate on your chart you would be 72 and you certainly don’t look like a woman 72 years old”, the doctor replied.
This wasn’t the first time I have had that reaction when the subject of my age comes up. In the past I always found myself saying “Thank you” and now I am questioning just why am I thanking them?
It is always said with an expression that makes it sound like I should be flattered. Now, I would definitely consider it a compliment if my doctor told me I had the bone density of a much younger person.
These experiences have made me start to wonder the following questions.
- What do people expect someone 72 years old to look like?
- If you do look 72 , is that bad?
- Why is it considered rude to ask a woman her age?
As I thought more about this, I realized that I did like the people thought I was younger. I realized it wasn’t just an issue of vanity, it was also because of the perceptions and treatment of older people.
People have expectations and make assumptions about older people. An older person is thought to be out of touch with current trends and technologies. I was out of town recently and having lunch with several recent college graduates and as we were about to leave they asked it I needed a ride. I replied that I would just Urber back to the hotel. They were taken aback and one of the young ladies actually said with an expression of surprise, “You know what Urber is”?
We’re expected to be physically inactive, and plagued with health issues. There are so many stereotypes portrayed that if you break out of that mold you are a surprise and a contradiction like Instagram influencer Lynn Slater @iconaccidental. An older woman is expected to be a grandma and look like Aunt Bee of the Andy Griffin Show; grey hair, a big plump and in a very boring small flower print dress with no style, life, ambition or sex appeal.
Age bias is complicated, because like all other bias, we all have them. We know young people face similar challenges of age bias and discrimination as old people do. If you look too young for example, your skills or competence might come into question. I recently had a consultation with a new oral surgeon who was performing a rather intricate procedure and he looked quite young. I found myself asking just how long he had been practicing?
Would I have asked the same question if he had looked older? And if he looked quite a bit older, would I then have thought that he might not be as skilled as he once was? It made me aware of my own biases and my need to challenge them.
Yes there are some basic truths to aging. Older people struggle with agility, memory loss and yes, your ears will continue to grow no matter your age. And younger people do have less experience in their profession, our worth should not be determined by our age, but by our actions.
We, as seniors, must not only challenge the bias we experience, but also challenge how we might contribute to it. When I socialize with my peers, I frequently hear comments like, “At my age,” and then followed for some reason why something couldn’t happen. I also hear “I’m too old for that”. That might in fact be true but making the decision that your limitations are defined by your age reinforces the stereotypes people have about older people.
We need a reset on our assumptions and to shift our perceptions about ourselves and others who are older or younger than ourselves if we want to be apart of a society that is age inclusive and values the differences that each generation has to offer. I am no longer willing to be a woman who “looks good for my age” and neither should you.