I spent the Canada Day weekend frogging. If you’re not sure what that means, you probably haven’t spent time at a cottage with a 12 year old boy. My intention was to spend the weekend with my feet up and sipping Sangria on the dock, not filling buckets with frogs for later release.
The boundless energy of a 12 year old can be tough to keep up with, but I’m always game to give it a go. This weekend was no different except that now I am lugging around a purple cast from a recently broken arm. While he bounced around from one activity to the next, I found myself taking a bit longer to get things done. “Hurry up!” is what I heard over and over. When I lagged behind while on frog catching detail, his final cry was “Don’t be such a grandma!” Well Hmmph! I suppose that wouldn’t have stung so much if I was actually his grandmother…but I’m not. I’m his aunt!
Of course, everybody chuckled and quickly joined in the chorus, “hurry up grandma!” Now I can take a joke as well as anybody, and I laughed too. But lately, I’ve heard so much abut ageism as the most tolerated form of prejudice, that I couldn’t help but notice how it slips into our conversations with very little awareness on our part.
In my retirement coaching business, I encounter clients who experience a fair amount of ageism. Some folks experience it in the workplace, others in their families, but it is rampant out there. It hadn’t really occurred to me how much we do it without even being aware of it. But this harmless little example reminded me that we need to be more conscious of our language and how without even being aware, we demean others and ourselves. With his “hurry up grandma” comment, not only did I feel the sting of being associated with an old person, but his actual grandmother reacted to it as well. “What’s wrong with being a grandma anyway?” she called out.
In one comment, poking fun at my ridiculously slow attempts to catch a frog, I realized how the language we use can conjure images of mental or physical frailty, disdain, and even incompetence. This ageism and the words we choose, can lead younger generations to make unfair assumptions about the capabilities of older people solely based on age.
When he called me grandma, I’m confidant he did not intend to insult anyone, just to poke fun at my slow pace. Interestingly, his choice of words suggested that my slow, slightly uncoordinated movements were comparable to a grandmother. On the surface it seems ok. But is it really? Is it ok to demean “grandmas” like that? Isn’t it like stereotyping all grandmothers as slow and incompetent? Seems like making unfair assumptions about people simply based on their age. Perhaps most intriguing, was that everybody in the group (including me) had a good laugh at the comparison. Wouldn’t it have been better to compare me with something that actually is slow? Like molasses in January, or maybe a turtle?
And what’s up with my reaction? How dare he call me a grandma? My knee-jerk reaction was “hey, don’t call me old!” Why does the idea of being old conjure such a negative reaction? Seems some of us have a long way to go when it comes to conquering ageism. Is the idea of being old the problem? Or is it the negative stereotype that bothers us? These labels tell us very little about the actual capabilities of people, who they are and what they stand for. We all know people who have lived many years that are perfectly fit, healthy and don’t fit that stereotype. Maybe it’s time to become more aware of our own feelings about aging.
Now the real grandma in the group, feeling mildly insulted, set us all straight. She hopped in the water, scooped up a frog, tossed it into the bucket with a smug grin and announced that grandmothers can be good froggers too. Lesson learned!
So, why do we talk like that? For the most part, we don’t intend to insult anyone. But our language in the area of ageism has rarely been checked before. Over the years, we have all learned to check our language about other “isms”, such as sexism and racism. But ageism is still rampant and we are not usually conscious of doing it.
Not only do we do it to others, but we do it to ourselves as well! How often have you heard someone say, “I’m having a senior moment”, or “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, or “I’m over the hill”. We associate our aging with negativity.
People who are entering retirement today want a different experience with aging. They want to be recognized as people with plenty to offer, without the unfair assumptions of their abilities based on age. They are working hard to reduce ageism in our society. Learning to check our language is one small way that we can all help.
After we got on with the frog catching, to my astonishment, I actually managed to scoop up a frog. A particularly slow frog, but still… Upon closer inspection, I was told to let him go. “Let the poor thing go. He’s old,” he said. Hmmm what to make of that? Why the association of old with being a “poor thing?” Ageist language is a thing and we all need to become more aware of how we use it. We need to challenge our assumptions of aging and educate ourselves on the many valuable contributions of our older adults. With ageism there is still so much to learn. But who thought I’d be learning this lesson from a kid and a frog? Well, why not?