Or is it the other way around?
The problem isn’t that we mistreat the elderly. Or at least not necessarily. I think the root of ageism (if that is what we’re calling it), lies in our nature as born “cognitive misers.” Categorization makes functioning in the world possible. If we didn’t categorize, we’d be overwhelmed by basic instructions or become paralyzed in the face of a simple decision. We say “I’m going to buy milk.” We don’t specify or even think about whether it is going to be seven-eleven brand milk, 1% or 2% or whole milk or Trader Joe’s Brand or the Target brand. We’re thirsty for milk so we put on our hat and go out to get some.
Something similar is happening in the intergenerational static. We categorize the old as such because they are, for the most part, irrelevant to our daily living. They do not quench a milk-thirst, (if you will). Therefore, they don’t warrant the cognitive burden they might otherwise demand. Instead, they remind us unapologetically of our mortality: a misshapen spine, a tennis-balled walker, wrinkles that permanently express three different emotions all at once. . .The fact that the elderly, by their mere existence, remind us of the impending final stop of life, is just another reason to contain them in a category. We carefully (or not so carefully?) toss the aged into a tidy, well sealed, euthanasia-friendly box. Instead of acknowledging the elderly, we often ignore them as we convince ourselves convincingly of their mutual preference for being “left alone.” Old people are incompetent, sick, disruptively slow and hard of hearing. All old people are the same.
What I find so tragic about this natural tendency to categorize or ignore the aged, is that we cannot even muster the brain space to consider them in terms of the messy, long, glorious, unfortunate human days they’ve lived and suffered. A magnitude of experience that is often four or even five times as vast as our own. To imagine that is hard to begin with and then, to think, “seniors” are as diverse as our peers.
Yes, I am stating the obvious but if you really think about it, the prevailing notion that aging turns you into a generic “old person” is utterly absurd. But that sentiment is the reality of our present relationship to generations twice or sometimes only once removed from our own. It is easier to call milk, milk. And in the end, milk is really just milk. But people. Now that is a different story.