Overthrowing Ageism

When my children were babies, it was almost a rite of passage to talk about how little sleep we were getting as new parents. We wore those dark circles under our eyes with pride.

When we put our son on the school bus for the first time, we weren’t embarrassed to admit how hard it was to let him go, and that perhaps we had shed a tear or two.

When we started looking at colleges, we spent countless hours sharing notes with friends, asking for advice, admitting how anxious we were about the costs.

These are all major milestones in life, points in time that represent change and growth. As social creatures, we tend to seek support from others who have been in our shoes. We become closer because of these shared experiences, and we get through them together.

It’s All About Ageism

So why is it so hard to talk about aging? Why are so many reticent to discuss the challenges they may be facing taking care of their aging parents? Why do adult children feel shame in admitting that we don’t know the best way to care for mom and dad? Why, for that matter, are we ashamed of our own aging? And, therefore, why do so many feel so alone at this particular milestone?

From my perspective as the CEO of SYNERGY HomeCare, a non-medical in-home care provider for older adults, it boils down to a rampant and pervasive environment of ageism.

Growing older isn’t a milestone that comes with bragging rights or a celebratory rite of passage. Unlike in many other countries, in the United States aging is considered an inevitable and unfortunate decline from life’s supposedly higher points. Somehow, as a society we have decided that getting older, losing our stamina, or needing some help is something to be ashamed of. Something to hide. And that stigma carries over to us—the adult children.

‘I believe all of us working in the aging sector have an obligation to talk often about the aging process, and about the benefits to getting older.’

Recently I ran across a classic example of this thinking. I was speaking with an old friend and after a while he sheepishly brought up that his dad—someone I grew up with—was declining a bit and not as active as he once was. I couldn’t believe how hard it was for my friend to talk about it. He admitted he was a bit embarrassed and had not spoken to many about what was occurring.

After I politely reminded him that he could always talk to me—and that I was in the business—I was able to provide him with some steps he could take to help himself and his dad.

Navigating the aging process is made more difficult for families because of this fear of aging and lack of openness in talking about it. Part of the problem is that older adults do not want to have the conversation, the one in which they admit that they might need some assistance. And, in many cases, they may not even notice how a decline in physical strength, mental acuity, stamina, dexterity and other facets of their lives are truly impacting them. Coming to terms with needing help can affect one’s self image, one’s dignity, one’s independence.

But why do adult children have such a challenge talking about it?

I believe all of us working in the aging sector have an obligation to talk often about the aging process, and about the benefits to getting older—new perspective, wisdom, insight, clarity, compassion, confidence, freedom. By doing so, we can normalize the process of aging and remind our society that being open and honest about what our older loved ones may be going through is a good thing. Hiding in plain sight and living with an unnecessary stigma does no good for the older adult nor for adult children.

As I talk to our franchisees and their staffs, I am constantly reminded that our industry is filled with compassionate, caring and ultra-busy people who are often thrust into action because of a life-altering fall, sudden illness or onset of dementia. When constantly putting out fires, it is hard to be proactive and “out in front” of our local communities talking about aging and the challenges adult children will likely experience along the way.

As professionals dedicated to improving life at older ages, we are in the best position to take the lead, not only in our professional lives, but in our personal lives as well. That means talking about aging and older adults as easily as we talk about babies. That means talking about the challenges, struggles, fears, stressors and benefits that we are experiencing as aging adults and as family members of older adults. Let’s practice what we preach and not be afraid to share in our own social circles.

This is revolution of words and actions. And it starts with us.

Charlie Young is the CEO of SYNERGY HomeCare, which is headquartered in Gilbert, Ariz.