Margaret Morganroth Gullette wants you to know she means the title of her new book, Ending Ageism: How Not to Shoot Old People, (Rutgers University Press), as a wake-up slap. She calls on Americans to be more aware of how the underlying age-based prejudice damages the lives of older people and their families—while often placing ethnic elders and older women in double jeopardy of discrimination, adding a touch of gray to sexism and racism they may already endure.
In Ending Ageism, Gullette, a visiting scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, describes multiple incidents of verbal and even physical affronts to older Americans that might be reported as hate crimes or hate speech were they perpetrated against someone solely because of their race, religion or gender.
Shooting of seniors is not merely a metaphor, she said. Too often legal authorities and the media treat gun violence against an elder by a distraught spouse, usually the husband, as a “mercy killing” to be lamented and excused, not punished. Many such cases result from an armed man’s desperate decision—one not mutually consented to by his wife—stemming from a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or terminal illness, as if there’s no other choice.
Ending Ageism tracks patterns of ageism across such domains as the U.S. systems of health care, law, media and politics—such as with voter ID laws blocking many seniors from the polls with difficult new requirements.
In a telephone interview, Gullette discussed the subtle differences between age bias and racism or sexism in America. But she also revealed the surprising influence of her experience with adult education in rural Nicaragua on her fundamental belief that people at any age can discover “a new sense of possibility” when offered opportunities too often denied them based on their years.
“The Violence of Ageism”
Instances of age bias in Gullette’s book range from an 80-year-old retired CEO she knows, who was “shoved down a subway stairs” and hospitalized by a young person in a hurry, to numerous examples of internet hate speech she cites.
Particularly striking was a post by one young man who complained, “God forbid these miserable once-were-people … survive as long as possible to burden the rest of us.”
Gullette explained, “The law and society recognize that sexism and racism can be violent. But we also need to recognize the violence of ageism. Sometimes the attacks are invisible—they go unseen. And too often the victims are silent.”
Behind such arrogance and invasiveness, Gullette wrote, lie “fantasies, laws, practices, disdain, avoidances, invisibility and hypervisibility, intolerance of our appearance, lack of audiences for our grievances, underestimation of our trials, dislike of our alleged characteristics or disgust at our apparent weak¬nesses, and unwillingness to look us in the eye or spend time in our company.”
Additionally, she stated, “Ageism makes every other bias worse. It can make homophobia worse, such as within the gay community—I mean, aging is not looked on positively within the male gay community. It makes sexism worse. Since Susan Sontag, we’ve known about the double standard of aging,” whether on the job or in Hollywood.
In medicine, she added, “If you get breast cancer, the odds of your surgeon not recommending chemotherapy for a woman over 65 are seven times greater than for women under 50.”
And in business, outsourcing and downsizing measures routinely deny employment, promotions and other work opportunities to those in midlife or older, despite extensive research showing that older workers are more reliable and are usually not more costly than younger workers.
Even democracy is taking a hit from ageism. Gullette observed, “The new search for fraudulent voters has asked old people to get forms of identification that would satisfy their local voting registration board. This is damaging to old people. It is liable to take away voting rights.”
Even before the recent wave of voter suppression laws, Gullette became aware of the limited options many elders have to document their citizenship. Several years ago her mother, a devoted lifelong voter, discovered in her 90s that she no longer had a valid driver’s license—her only valid ID—since she had stopped driving. Also, although she was born in America, her birth certificate showed her traditional Jewish name, and later documents showed her married name.
Even though the motor vehicles bureau in Florida, where she lived, issued Gullette’s mother a new ID in time for an upcoming election, the tighter restrictions in many states have toughened access to the polls, especially limiting voting rights for older naturalized citizens or ethnic elders who were born in rural areas, where birth certificates were not common earlier in the 20th century.
Inspiration in Nicaragua
What inspired Gullette to devote decades to puncturing American culture’s framing of our advancing years as a long and depressing decline? “I think my mother and my family had a lot to do with it,” said Gullette.
“My mother was a funny source for my interest in ageism because she was totally optimistic. She instilled in me a theme I call ‘the progress narrative.’ ” Rather than seeing our added years as a slide into decrepitude, Gullette realized that, given a positive attitude and opportunities for development, people can progress both for themselves and their communities—and not only just in late life.
Unexpected insights about the value of overcoming age-based barriers to personal and economic development emerged from her involvement with an adult-education school in Nicaragua.
She and her husband began visiting the community of San Juan del Sur, in southwestern Nicaragua near the Pacific Coast, in the late 1980s, after the town became a Sister City of the Gullettes’ hometown of Newton, Mass. Friends they made there ran a literacy program that had graduated 300 women with sixth-grade diploma’s—but those wishing to continue learning were blocked from attending regular high schools.
Gullette explained, “When we started there were no high schools for adults. If you were over 18, or if you were a woman or had a baby, you couldn’t go. Our earliest students were in their 40s and 50s, and they hadn’t had any schooling. We gave them a second chance to go to high school.”
In 2001, she recalled, they got permission (but no government funding, only private donations) to create the Free High School for Adults, which Gullette cofounded with Dr. Rosa Elena Bello.
“Now 16 years and a 1001 graduates later, we have a grandmother, a mother and a daughter, three generations. (We have men too, of course.) They say, ‘This wasn’t possible—I couldn’t go anywhere.’ Their lives were stymied. Now they feel this great sense of possibility. Now they know how to learn; they didn’t know what education could bring them.”
Gullette learned to speak Spanish in order to teach during her frequent trips there, as well as help conduct research by interviewing current and past students. After graduating, she said, “Most of them want more. Over a third of our graduates go on and do some kind of higher education, technical school or, if they can afford it, university. And they sacrifice. It’s just an amazing story.”
She remembered one woman who said beforehand, “Oh, I can’t do this.” However, Gullette went on, “Now she says, ‘I can do it, I can do anything. Who knows what’s going to happen next? I could learn English, I could become an accountant.’ That happened over and over again. And they have absolutely changed the culture of our region of Nicaragua.”
The Longevity We Deserve
Gullette said her rural Nicaraguan experience demonstrated how her idea that people can feel they are progressing in some way at any stage of their lives, instead of merely declining with they years, is “not just an elite narrative” of the urban middle class.
She added, “People, as much as possible, can decide what they want to call progress, And they sometimes find some small thing that is a positive about their life that makes them feel like getting up in the morning.”
Meanwhile, Gullette emphasized, “It’s a harsh fact that ageism has grown much worse, while the public is yet to learn what the word means.” Like sexism and racism in the mid-20th century, change will only occur when people recognize and call out ageist prejudice in many domains of American life. That will ”bring us the decent longevity that all generations deserve,” she said.
Paul Kleyman is the National Coordinator of the Journalists Network on Generations and editor of Generations Beat Online News (www.GBONews.org).