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  • Writer's pictureJohn D. Kemp

Defining the Old New Age

A Response To Lois Angelo’s “Defining the New Old Age”

By John D. Kemp, President & CEO, The Viscardi Center

I don’t feel nor act nor behave in the ways I’ve been told people of my age should act! I live at a much younger age than what ‘others’ expect. There should be no expectations for how someone of any age should feel, act or behave. But, years and years of worsening assumptions and behaviors, harmful attempts at humor based on horrid stereotyping of older people is doing great harm to the lost lore that you so respectfully refer to as ‘po’ in Tagalog that reinforces wisdom and authority of many older Philippine people.

The word ‘gerontology’ has no antonym; the word ‘elder’ has many – “newcomer, greenhorn, adolescent, rookie, neophyte, inferior, successor, underling, junior, assistant, fledgling, minor, youngster, freshman, newbie, beginner, subordinate, novice”, according to I see generational irony in my sourcing this antonym from an obscure website and not from a one thousand page paper dictionary! Most of these words, I can also see, are clearly insulting to young adults. Just as you rightfully identify how often we - society – illustrate aging as a terrifying, degrading process, we older persons identify younger adults as lacking in experience, wisdom, insight, perspective, maybe empathy and even maturity, a term I dislike as I also personally haven’t matured yet. Younger persons may not yet have been poisoned by repeated hurtful and simply wrong biases that are ingrained in our social constructs, our core beliefs and values, and extend to discriminatory tactics and our fundamental equalities.

Together, we seek the same solutions to a universal nomenclature, a vernacular or lexicon that promotes dignity, respect and voice for all people regardless of age.

My lived experience has been one as a person with a disability in an ableist’s world. Ableism, as defined by Urban Dictionary, “is the discrimination or prejudice against people who have disabilities. Ableism can take the form of ideas and assumptions, stereotypes, attitudes and practices, physical barriers in the environment, or larger scale oppression. It is oftentimes unintentional, and most people are completely unaware of the impact of their words or actions.” I feel it and/or see it nearly every day. Ageism, foisted upon older people, but may be experienced by young adults as well, is stereotyping and/or discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age.

According to Robert Butler, ‘ageism’ is a combination of three connected elements:

  1. ‘prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the aging process;

  2. discriminatory practices against older people; and,

  3. institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly (sic) people’.

Combining ageism with ableism, the effect is exponentially destructive and seriously distressing, oftentimes resulting in unjustified denigration of older persons with disabilities that somehow allow us to be ignored, neglected, and left to waste away. No way, I say!

Interestingly, the term ‘ageism’, though predominantly used in relation to older people, is also used in regards to prejudice and discrimination against adolescents and children such as denying them certain privileges usually reserved for adults.[5] This can also include ignoring their ideas because they are considered "too young", or assuming that they should behave in certain ways because of their age.[6]

Older people themselves can be deeply ageist, having internalized a lifetime of negative stereotypes about aging. [7]

Fear of death or exacerbating existing physical, intellectual or emotional limitations that create one’s disability as well as fear of becoming dependent on others are major causes of ageism.

A publication in the New England Journal of Medicine (2018) found that the most productive age in a human’s life is not in our 20s or 30s, but between the ages of 60 and 70. The study confirmed that the second most productive age is between 70 and 80 and the third most productive decade is 50 to 60. The average age of a Nobel Prize winner is 62.

Young and old, we all want dignity, respect and a voice.

Words like ‘crip’, ’gimp’, ‘handicapped’, and ‘crippled’ when delivered by an apparently non-disabled person to me demonstrate ignorance and disrespect. But, what’s the name of the Obamas’ backed, Netflix-award winning documentary? Crip Camp! People with disabilities can call each other these names, but they carry potentially more harm when used recklessly and derogatorily by non-disabled people toward us. Crip Camp is a film by and for people with disabilities that non-disabled people find deeply intriguing. Two stars of Crip Camp are my dear friends, Judy Heumann and Neil Jacobson, both in their seventies are as creative and fierce as when the movie was filmed when they were teenagers.

Young people seem to be energetic, spontaneous, wildly creative (think about the ages of generations of songwriters and performers at their most creative, generally) and risktakers, sometimes to a fault. These are characteristics or traits I admire and encourage, even among older people, with and without disabilities. But young people lack experience, naturally, and with experience does come some wisdom.

Even if you fail, don’t stop trying out new thoughts, actions, ideas only because of one’s age.

And, Lois, I like your value system that recognizes ‘aging as a biological and transformative process’ that need not be used to make our lives harder to enjoy by making simple changes in our vocabulary. I promise I won’t judge you for your age if you won’t judge me for my age or disability.


John D. Kemp is President & CEO of The Viscardi Center and Henry Viscardi School . He is also a 2019-2020 Encore Public Voices Fellow.

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