Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Not "too old": Presidential candidates help transform aged, old argument

Ness White wrote this article for Viet Tide (published Dec. 18, 2015) with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program, a project of The Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, supported by the Silver Century Foundation. It has since been updated and edited accordingly, last posted on the New America Media website on Jan. 5 as "Too Old to Be President? Ageism a Political Undercurrent in U.S."

ORLANDO, Fla.-- Ageist comments have been made against three leading 2016 presidential contenders so far -- both of whom are older than what is considered to be the middle-aged bracket.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 68, a Democrat, has been called “too old to run” for president, in the mainstream media. And political independent U. S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, 74, of Vermont, has been called an “unlikely white-haired rock star.”  

While Republican frontrunner, and business mogul Donald Trump, 69, has mostly managed to avoid questions based on his age to date, largely because he is so controversial, he has not completely escaped the negative perception of him based on his age.

Trevor Noah on The Daily Show (Jan. 5) mocked his New Year’s Eve appearance on Fox stating, “Donald Trump is the human embodiment of Times Square: Their both old, loud, flashy and full of garbage.” Why “old”?

Negativity Persist

How Americans view aging was brought up throughout the five-day 68th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) in Orlando, Fla., in November. The event attracted over 4,000 researchers in aging from around the world.

During one press presentation, for example, The FrameWorks Institute shared a video of street interviews with people being asked to describe aging. For the most part, people highlighted the negative aspects of aging, focusing on illness and disability.

GSA’s opening keynote speaker, Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, brother of Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was key in shaping Obamacare policies. He had shared similar -- though perhaps extreme -- views about aging, particularly the end years. 

In October 2014, The Atlantic published his article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” in which he focused on some of the horrors of care at the end of life and the difficulties he expects might await him as he ages.

“Doubtless, death is a loss,” he wrote. “Living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world.”

Emanuel went on in the article, “We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

Interestingly, his view might be challenged by the vast amounts of energy emitted by most of the leading presidential contenders during debates and on the campaign trail. More directly, however, various health journalists, experts and academics have criticized Emanuel’s stance, pointing to the larger issue of how Americans view aging.

A Different View

Even though Emanuel avoided mentioning his provocative ideas in his keynote speech, a panel of experts on aging zeroed in on his negative views of living beyond age 75 and how his ideas reflect U.S. culture, as well as ways in which to transform such narratives.

Author Wendy Lustbader, a lecturer at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, said that some of the most important opportunities for growth occur when people are vulnerable, as they age. Further, she added, illness, frailty, disability and the approach of death can be “vehicles for change,” allowing people the opportunity to make sense of the past and make peace with their loved ones as they urgently desire to become complete.

Emmanuel’s article, Lustbader said, “[gave] us a catalogue of fear.” She countered his view by adding that the deprivation some people feel when aging can lead for some to creativity, which “brings up the needs of the soul.”

Jennifer Sasser, who chairs the Department of Human Sciences at Marylhurst University in Portland, Ore., said what Emanuel described in his piece could really apply to people of any age, as all people are subject to frailty and pain. 

“We need to shift consciousness,” said Sasser, who directs Maryhurst’s Gerontology Program. “This is about being a human being.” 

Expanding on the Positives

Members of the audience contributed their views, some alluding to a fear and anxiety around death that is pervasive in U.S. culture. One woman mentioned that in dictionaries, the word “geriatric” is defined in negative terms, suggesting nothing about health in older years. 

For example, the online Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “geriatrics” as “the process of growing old and the medical care of old people” and adds the metaphorical definition, “being old and outmoded (geriatric airplanes).”

Even though we might not be able to change those negative terms, Sasser added, we can expand on the positives of aging.

When it comes to the leading presidential candidates, none are showing signs of decline from old age. Despite what voters might think of their views, these candidates are challenging and maybe even changing some stereotypes about aging.


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