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Dr Zvi Lanir

Dr Zvi Lanir

In this extract from The Wisdom Years, founding president of the Praxis Institute, Dr Zvi Lanir takes aim at ‘ageism,’ and reveals why we need to change the vocabulary around getting older.

We tend to classify anyone who is retired as ‘old’, even when thinking about ourselves. Moving beyond this socially imposed stigma is a big challenge. In fact, this is the first hurdle which we must overcome in order to recognise and experience the wisdom period of our lives.

The reasons for accepting this classification are complex. Broadly speaking, society defines anyone who has retired as ‘old’. This definition relates only to an individual’s chronological age, ignoring their functional age. This universally accepted attitude is the root cause of ageism.

Almost all countries have national retirement laws. These usually allow employers to release workers when they reach a pre-defined retirement age, with no compulsion to consider their actual functional abilities.The term ‘ageism’ was coined by Robert Butler – MD, psychologist and gerontologist – to denote age-based discrimination. Like racism and sexism, ageism is based on a nexus of stereotypes. Older people have supposedly lost the ability to handle change, are unable to acquire new skills and are less efficient and productive.

However, ageism is evident far beyond the workplace, in both the personal and the social spheres of life. External signs of aging like white hair and wrinkles trigger negative stereotypical reactions. These stereotypes include the perception of an older person as someone who walks and thinks slowly, whose interests, activities and curiosity are severely limited.

According to this way of thinking, the elderly are closed to the world, live in the past and have no real future, while their minds and bodies are shrinking in tandem.

When we retire, we become objects of the burgeoning ‘old age’ market, whose business is predicated on our fears of aging. Among other things, this market offers pharmacological products, food additives, anti-aging medication and plastic surgery companies and services.

To combat our internal ageism, we must first create a safe space for this newly acknowledged period in our lives and legitimise it for ourselves. Unfortunately, we still don’t have the vocabulary necessary to interpret the meaning of retirement, other than the conventional terms used to describe old age. These commonly used terms for old age and its attendant features determine our beliefs, whether consciously or unconsciously, and imprison us within a self-defined cage of ageism.Many entities claim to be experts in taking care of us once we’ve reached old age. These include public as well as private health-care organizations, rest homes and insurance companies. All of them try to convince us that a longer life expectancy is dependent on greater use of their services. Social, institutional and commercial norms all work to reinforce our internal, built-in ageism.  

The very concept of ‘retirement’ is misleading, as it suggests that life after work is an inevitable downhill road, ending in death.

A retired person usually receives a pension. This sends the message that while compensation is required for work done in the past, any further contribution to society is no longer expected.

Retirees are viewed as having left life’s active playing field and are expected to negotiate the pitfalls of old age as best and as comfortably as they can. At the same time, it is expected that pensions will become increasingly inadequate as life’s needs eat into their accumulated savings.

This anticipated decline is not limited to financial concerns. It includes the knowledge, wisdom and respect acquired during adulthood. With these, too, we start to gnaw away at the accumulated balance of our ‘earnings’ to date.

Society has devised a number of terms which give a positive veneer to people’s lives after they have retired, such as ‘senior citizen’ and the ‘golden years’. However, such expressions are little more than a comforting deception — a way of reclassifying people who have retired as ‘old’, while hinting that they have not yet gone ‘over the hill’ into geriatric old age.

Phrases such as ‘You don’t really look old’ or ‘You look younger than your years’ are commonly used to describe people whose behaviour and looks do not fit with their chronological ‘old’ age. Many people have called me a ‘young old person’. Lacking a new vocabulary, people cling to the old one and end up using a combination of familiar terms — ‘young’ and ‘old’.

In a nutshell, the struggle against our own internal ageism is also a battle against the language and terms we have grown up with. The words available to us are based on what we think we know about old age and reflect the popular imagery and needs associated with it. However, at the start of the 21st century, what we are experiencing about aging reflects a new and different kind of reality, one which we have not yet learned to express.

I’ve been asked many times why I insist on talking about ‘the age of wisdom’ or ‘the wisdom years’ rather than ‘young old age’. Why shouldn’t we retain the term ‘old age’ to describe this stage of life?

During most of human history, old age has usually been quite short. It was commonly viewed as a pointless appendage to human life, following the completion of the task of bringing the next generation into the world and providing for it. Old age heralded the change from a person’s status as an asset to an economic and social liability. Of course, this outlook influenced society’s attitude to old people, both consciously and subconsciously. While most religions pay lip service to the need to honour one’s parents, in reality old people were commonly marginalised and banished to a life of loneliness and poverty.

For these reasons, I have consistently opposed any attempt to include the word ‘old’ in any description of this new period in our lives. I continue to insist on the title of ‘the age of wisdom’. By using the word ‘wisdom’, I am offering a nucleus around which a new set of concepts — and a new vocabulary — for our thoughts and actions in later life can crystallise.

The Wisdom Years Unleashing Your Potential in Later Life is published by Exisle, rrp $29.99