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Outgrowing Ageism

With “Ageism Unmasked,” Tracey Gendron exposes age-based bias and outlines strategies for meaningful “elderhood.”

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You probably think ageism only affects old people. If so, you’re wrong. In fact, gerontologist Tracey Gendron starts out her new book, “Ageism Unmasked,” with the provocative assertion, “Everything you know about aging is wrong.”

“There is no such thing as someone who is not aging,” Gendron said in a Zoom interview with Style. “So ageism affects all of us.”

Subtitled “Exploring Age Bias and How to End It,” Gendron’s book was released March 1st and marks the first foray into the popular press for an academic researcher who serves as the chair of VCU’s Department of Gerontology and director of the Virginia Center on Aging.

She says the timing couldn’t be better for this book.

“With the pandemic, age-related biases I’ve studied for years started coming to the surface,” Gendron explains. “Hashtags like #BoomerRemover really shined a light on ageism’s dark underbelly.”

Our Q&A with Gendron touched on the “Great Resignation,” OKBoomer, and even Ibram Kendi.

Style Weekly: How does ageism affect younger people?

Tracey Gendron: Ageism is any discrimination based on age. So when younger people are assumed to be entitled or lazy, that’s ageism. I look at something like the #OKBoomer hashtag: It started as a pushback by younger people who were feeling discriminated against by older people. When younger people experience bias based on age, they internalize negative feelings which is bad in two ways: they reciprocate by discriminating against older people, but they also internalize perceptions that aging is bad.

As an academic, you’ve studied ageism for years. Why publish a book like this now?

TG: It took me years to figure out how to approach this, then I read books by [“How to Be an Antiracist” author] Ibram Kendi. I saw the historical approach he took and a light bulb went off. Something like ageism doesn’t happen all of a sudden, there are layers that coalesce over time and result in the monster we have now.

So many factors play a part and some negative things have been perpetuated by my profession. Gerontologists promoted “successful aging” as maintaining independence, but it has resulted in segregating older people into retirement communities and reinforcing ideas that all older people are vulnerable and needy.

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You take issue with retirement as a life stage. Why is that?

TG: People don’t realize that we have physically built ageism into our society. With retirement communities, we’re segregating older people in places where there are literally walls keeping them separate. It’s no wonder that we’re talking about “those old people over there.”

In parallel with that physical separation, you have perceptions that retired people don’t have anything more to offer. There are a lot of older people out there that would love to be seen as contributors and they’re often made to feel like they no longer have that ability.

As a part of the current 'Great Resignation,' a lot of people are transitioning out of the workforce for reasons other than age. Retirement just means you used to work full-time; and with younger people figuring out what they want that to look like, we have the opportunity to collectively decide what later stages of life can look like. I like the term elderhood. To me, that’s a strength-based term rather than something based on withdrawal.

How do you hope your book can help in counteracting ageism?

TG: In my book, I talk about senescence, which is the biological process of cellular decline, and contrast that with aging. Aging isn’t just about decline, it’s also about growth, development, maintenance, adaptation. It isn’t just about “oh, my back hurts." Aging is also about “now I cope better with stress” or “I’m more comfortable in my own skin and don’t worry what other people think.” By contrasting senescence and aging, I’m hoping people will have an ah-ha moment where they realize that physical decline is just one small part of the full experience of aging.

Fountain Bookstore is hosting an online conversation with the author on Thursday, March 3rd at 6 p.m. via Crowdcast. Details are available at http://fountainbookstore.com/gendron030322

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