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A Long-Tolerated Ism

Updated: 4 days ago

I haven’t written a blog for quite some time and was planning to stop writing them altogether, but I decided to write about something that’s been irritating me. Here goes:

No fair-minded person thinks it’s okay to disrespect people because of a disability, race, religion, or physical imperfection.

Why, then, is ageism okay? Why is it acceptable to devalue people because they are old? Is it because maybe they used their seatbelts and didn’t smoke? There is luck involved in living to a ripe old age, but what’s wrong with that? We don’t ridicule people for being lucky enough to win the lottery.

I’m not sensitive because (full disclosure) I’m older than thirty-five, but I’ve always felt it was nasty and short-sighted to make fun of people because of their age (teenagers and millennials aside). This tendency has really taken off recently, now that two elderly gentlemen are running for the US presidency (okay, one gentleman and one guy with many ungentlemanly attributes). Many people just don’t want an old president, seeming to feel that all people past a certain age are mentally deficient.

The longer you live, the likelihood you will have physical problems increases. The things that go wrong are often cumulative. A pain in a joint gets worse and may spread to other joints with time. Complications from diabetes accumulate. Ears and eyes don’t work as well. Heart disease tends to progress and may become debilitating. Emphysema marches on at its own pace. The risk of something that might strike suddenly, such as a stroke or cancer, increases with age. Thankfully, many of these things are treatable with medicine and/or surgery, often with miraculous results. There are some untreatable really scary, debilitating conditions, such as ALS and dementia, that increase in prevalence with age.

That said, there is no way to predict when or even if these things will afflict a particular person. Some people can be affected before age fifty, others past age ninety, but still others are fortunate enough to escape all of these problems and die peacefully in their sleep after a century of living. 

So why all the negative comments and jokes about old people? Okay, general strength and stamina decrease over time, but everyday functioning doesn’t require bench pressing a hundred pounds, or fifty, for that matter. How often do you need to run a mile in ten minutes to be productive at your job or clean your house? Why is it acceptable to make fun of someone suffering from a bad back?

Mental and physical limitations, for the most part, are not connected, so a person who has difficulty walking can be mentally as sharp as a tack. The bad news is that intelligence, as measured by IQ, decreases with age. If you’re over thirty-five, your intelligence is already declining, but should you be forced to retire? Aspects of intelligence that are especially hard hit early on are mental processing speed and what is termed fluid intelligence, the ability to figure things out with no prior knowledge (such as filling in a matrix). These begin their descent around the ripe old age of 25.

On the other hand, crystallized intelligence, including vocabulary, general knowledge, and “wisdom,” increases or holds steady for some time. On average, it begins to decline between ages sixty and seventy, but not by much. In one study, the typical ninety-five-year-old had a higher crystallized intelligence than thirty-five-year-olds. Remember, old people today have experienced a lot of what life has to offer. They have lived through several wars (some were alive during World War II), the Cuban Missile Crisis, the British Invasion (starting with the Beatles), interest rates much higher than they are now (with home mortgage rates over 18%), new disease outbreaks (polio, Legionnaire’s disease, AIDS), a presidential assassination, a presidential resignation, gas rationing, recessions, Jim Jones (who literally convinced people to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid), race riots, campus unrest, Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, the collapse of the Soviet Union—I could go on. All these experiences enable older people to have a perspective younger people don’t have.

While considering age, I’m more concerned about the mental health of young people than old ones. Depression is higher in young people than the elderly. Several well-publicized airplane disasters were caused by depressed middle-aged pilots, who took scores of people down with them. I don’t want a depressed forty- or fifty-year-old to have the nuclear codes.

Young people make worse drivers and are responsible for more traffic fatalities than people over age eighty. (Why do old drivers have to be tested more than young ones in some places?)

We should look at old people who are still enjoying life as lucky and hope to join that club someday. Plenty of them are smart and continue to add to their accomplishments. Warren Buffet is the 93-year-old  CEO of Berkshire Hathaway,  and many wanna-be rich people currently try to emulate his investments. Other CEOs of major companies you may not have heard of include Roger Penske (86 years old) of Penske Automotive (26% increase in stock price last year), Robert Greenberg (83 years old) of Sketchers USA (34% increase in stock price last year), and  Albert Nahmed (82 years old) of Watsco (45% increase in stock price last year).

What about scientists? Can they be productive in their later years? Freeman Dyson, a theoretical physicist and mathematician, continued to be productive at the Institute for Advanced Studies (Princeton) until he died at age 96. Leon Lederman, who received a Nobel Prize in physics, was an active researcher until his late 80s, and the well-known biologist E.O. Wilson continued his research and writing well into his 90s. Stephen Hawking couldn’t breathe on his own, yet had a brilliant career until he died. Although only 76 when he passed away, I imagine if he’d lived, he would have been productive for many more years. While he was alive, he traveled around the world, meeting with other important, brilliant people as well as world leaders, despite his significant physical limitations.

Getting back to the presidential race, you should ask yourself which candidate has the most wisdom. I don’t intend to have a beer with my president, nor am I interested in seeing him ride a bike, jog, or lift weights. If he can’t walk, he can use a wheelchair like 66-year-old Governor Abbot of Texas.

Don’t be fooled by hair dye and skin bronzer—the two candidates are not significantly different in age. Also, don’t drink the Kool-Aid (figuratively) and believe the falsehoods repeated over and over by one side (a technique used by the thought police in 1984). Neither candidate is senile. Vote for the one you trust to make thoughtful, wise decisions.

The oldest current world leader, President Paul Biya, is 91 years old. His supporters are urging him to run for re-election in 2025. He has yet to decide whether to throw his hat back in the ring.

The next time you’re out and about and see an elderly person (someone thirty or more years older than you), don’t make a disparaging remark or push past them impatiently if they’re a little slow. Instead, think if I take really good care of myself, someday, that could be me.

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Jun 23

So very wise,

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