Promoting a Message of Competence

Promoting a Message of Competence

Because older individuals are often stereotyped as frail, feeble, and incompetent, it should be no surprise that thieves and other thugs might believe that neighborhoods, where a lot of older people live, should be good targets. I live in such a neighborhood where many of us are older. This morning at 4:00 a.m., a would-be thief brazenly opened my neighbor’s gate and walked into the side door to his garage. The light in the garage was on because my neighbor was already up working on a project. My neighbor saw the intruder and chased him on foot down the street until he got into a small, older white car and drove away. My neighbor, a man in his early seventies, could have pulverized the intruder had he caught up with him. That was the case when an eighty-two-year-old female bodybuilder named Willie Murphy caught an intruder in her home. She clobbered the intruder, and he ended up in the hospital.  

We Might Be Setting Ourselves Up

When we remain silent as others stereotype older people as feeble and frail, we set ourselves up to be victims of thefts and also of scams. Scammers assume that sixty and older are lonely, have a nest egg, and are less likely to be effective at reporting crimes due to memory issues. One would-be scammer didn’t realize it at the time, but he ended up trying to scam a former FBI director and his wife; the couple share their story and how the scammer was caught in a five-minute video. We all need to educate ourselves about scams and then fight back with clear notes and information that state, local, or federal law enforcement agencies can use. Then we need to tell others we are prepared to fight back through educating ourselves and reporting scams.  We cannot allow stereotypes about older adults to encourage would-be scammers. We must promote a message of competence and willingness to push back.

Robbed in Another Important Way

In addition to becoming targets of thieves and scammers, individuals who perceive us as feebler and frailer are more likely to use condescending communication behaviors when interacting with us. Typically, older women experience this type of ageism more than men do. Nonetheless, if we ignore it, we are being robbed in another important way. When we are constantly discounted and demeaned through ageist language or when others treat us like naïve children, our wellbeing is at risk. Research has suggested that when we internalize negative views about ourselves as older adults, we are more likely to feel stressed and depressed. We are also more likely to feel less capable. Further, our lifespans could be cut short by as many as seven and a half years when we start internalizing negative views of aging.

We Can Take Action

There are a number of actions all of us can take to start changing the narrative about aging. First, whenever you see or hear a positive story about an older adult acting in a way that defies stereotypes, share it! We cannot let these wonderful stories silently fall through the cracks. We can also become role models for other people. We can also help defy age-stereotypes by the way we live. I live in a community where some of my seventy and eighty-year-old neighbors stay very active and are still jogging and working out. I’ve known adults in their seventies and eighties who have gone back to school just for the joy of learning. Younger people need to see us as vibrant, active individuals who are continually growing and learning. Finally, when we hear ageist remarks (stereotyping and discrimination based on age), if we silently ignore these slights, we are putting ourselves and others at greater risk for losses and for health problems. It isn’t easy to confront ageist remarks. Often, these remarks stem from implicit stereotypes – others don’t even recognize that their comments are demeaning or insulting. Sometimes it isn’t just the words that are used, but the vocal tone and even touch that accompanies the communication that is especially condescending. For example, a neighbor told her doctor that she wasn’t feeling well. He told her that her problems were age-related. My neighbor expressed frustration. Then the nurse put her arm around her and said something like, “Oh sweetie, it’s okay.”  Fortunately, my neighbor found another doctor who listened to her and recognized that her problem was related to an interaction from one of the medications she was taking. When anyone treats me in a demeaning way, I typically will say something. My goal is not to offend or to put someone on the defensive. Rather, my goal is to make implicit stereotypes visible. When a store clerk asked if I needed help carrying two cans of vegetables and a quart of milk, I looked at her in the eye and said, “Why would you think I’d need any help carrying two cans of vegetables and a quart of milk?”  I smiled but made my point. We cannot afford to be silent. We must speak up and be the difference. We’ll help ourselves and everyone else when we do so.

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