Have you ever wondered why we happily anticipate some birthdays while dreading others?  Why we count the days until we turn 16 but drag our feet as we approach 60?  Well, like the attempted humor on greeting cards or television shows, the underlying message is loud and clear.  The one thing nobody wants to be is old.  I guess that’s understandable.  It’s hard to look forward to becoming feeble, cranky and incompetent.

Now if you think those characteristics are unfair, you’re right.  But unfortunately, that’s how older people are often defined.  It’s called ageism and is often referred to as the last acceptable prejudice that people can still get away with.  A term coined by the late geriatric pioneer, Dr. Robert Butler, it occurs when we stereotype and discriminate against people based solely on their years.

Our judgment about aging comes not from knowledge but preconceived assumptions.  And we end up painting our elders with only two strokes – either confused and lonely or radical nonconformists.  Of course, they can be these things but when we only see the extremes, we reduce them to not much more than caricatures of their true selves.

Based on faulty beliefs, we thoughtlessly marginalize an entire group when we assume characteristics like forgetfulness and illness are unavoidable after a certain age.  And it doesn’t matter even if we think we’re being nice.  Telling someone who is 70 or 80 that they don’t look their age is really saying that there’s something wrong with being 70 or 80 in the first place and it’s better to pass as someone younger.

It turns out that perpetuating the negative connotations of aging can diminish not only a vibrant life but actually rob it of years.  A longevity study at Yale University found that those with positive perceptions of aging instead of negative ones lived an average of seven years longer.  Apparently, optimism delivers more bang for your buck than even low cholesterol and exercise.

But then why is it so hard to eliminate the pessimistic view?  Research shows that we’re exposed to negative stereotypes about aging while we’re still young and most likely accept them without question. Growing up, we anticipate decline is inevitable.  And by the time we’re old, we’ve already internalized these misperceptions and may resign ourselves that they’re inescapable.  In this way, we perpetuate the stereotypes and the fallacy continues.

So how do we break the cycle?  We could begin by challenging the accuracy of our own beliefs and teaching a more realistic view of aging to our kids.  We also need to recognize and speak out against ageism, whenever we witness it.  Life is hard enough.  Let’s support everyone living up to their full potential, not living down to someone else’s low expectations.

Aging is a natural stage of life but ageism stops us from embracing every year we’re fortunate to get. There’s no doubt our culture values youth and we all know that growing older can bring its own challenges.  But maybe our view point would be different if we quit believing we’re predestined to go from self-sufficient and productive to useless and dependent.

We can’t change this overnight, but while we’re working on it, let’s at least improve on the stereotypes. Instead of slow and grouchy, let’s slant the bias towards intelligent, creative and a great sense of humor.  And don’t forget determination.  Because age alone shouldn’t define us.  And we’re not going to let anyone’s narrow mindedness do it either.