Openly Gray: Fighting Ageism Starts with Us

Leadership  |  May 4, 2021

Woman flips grey hair.

Written by: Jill Vitale-Aussem, President and CEO of CLC-Cappella Living Solutions

Actress Justine Bateman is making headlines for her new book, Face: One Square Foot of Skin.  In her book, Bateman pushes back against Hollywood expectations of plastic surgery, flawless faces, and the notion that older women’s faces are unattractive and something to be “fixed” through medical procedures.

Women seem to bear the brunt of ageism (prejudice or discrimination based on age) but men are certainly not immune. All of us exist in a youth obsessed society and are bombarded with negative messages about aging in advertising, the media and in our day to day conversations and interactions. We rarely think about, or even notice, these messages. But they’re doing incredible harm.

The research is clear. If we believe that growing older is a downhill slide into despair and incapacitation, it likely will be. Negative perceptions of aging are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Numerous research studies have found that if we believe the negative views of aging we’re less likely to recover from a debilitating accident, more likely to develop dementia and we may shorten our lifespans by over seven years! Ageism is so impactful to our health that researchers estimate it increases health care spending in the US by $63 billion each year! Imagine how we could impact our own lives and our society if we shifted our thinking.

It’s hard to undo years of conditioning and it’s overwhelming to think about changing the mindsets of millions of people. But change can start with small steps. And it can start with us – each of us – as individuals.

For me, the most obvious opportunity to begin embracing my age was to stop dying my hair, to become, as some people put it, openly gray. It wasn’t easy. Going gray is so emotionally challenging that thousands of women flock to Facebook support groups like Silver Sisters in which members lift each other up and help each other endure comments and criticism from family and friends. Every so often you’ll see a post from someone confessing, “I made a color appointment. I just can’t take it anymore.”

I’ll admit, I was tempted to do the same a few times. But I made it. And I found that the process going on outside my head for the last two years was similar to the process going on inside my head. As I grew out that old dyed hair to make way for my new sparkling silver, I began to release the limiting and damaging beliefs about getting older to make way for a new view of my own old age.

Now, let’s be honest, getting older does have its challenges. The physical changes are real.  But there are so many gifts that come with aging. I was recently talking with residents at Clermont Park about their aging experiences and heard uplifting messages like, “this is the most joyful time of my life” and, “I have peace and well-being that I have never experienced before.” And the research backs that up. Life satisfaction increases as we get older.

I know ditching the dye isn’t for everyone. And that’s ok. But there are other things we can do to change our own aging process and create ripple effects in this world. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Change the conversation! The next time someone says, “You look great for your age!” ask, “What’s wrong with looking like I’m the age I am?”  Or if you encounter people talking about all of the bad things that come with aging, change the conversation and ask about some of the good things that come with getting older.
  • Ageism awareness challenge: find a group of willing participants and ask each person to commit to spending a week being hyper aware of the negative aging messages around them.  Come back together as a group and discuss.  Once you see ageism, and recognize it for what it is, it starts to lose its power. You might want to also have the group watch this short TED Talk from Ashton Applewhite.
  • Stop buying ageist greeting cards. Instead, spread the word about the gifts and momentum that come with each passing year. Make your own cards or check out The Eden Alternative and Changing the Narrative Colorado for anti-ageism birthday cards.

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