I get this reaction on a regular basis:
I’m at the supermarket checkout counter with my cloth shopping bags, and the cashier starts to ring up my groceries and pack them. I notice s/he is placing next to one another the couple of items that come in glass jars or bottles, and I immediately request that those bottles please be separated into separate bags (of which I have brought plenty). There’s a rolling of the eyes, a scowl, or a drawn-out sigh of disapproval as that person begrudgingly does what I ask.
The same exchange happens when I notice that my eggs are being placed in the bottom of a bag and about to be covered by heavy items such as cans or a large container of detergent. Ditto when refrigerated or frozen foods are going into the same bag as cereal boxes and other paper packaging that absorb moisture.
Have people like this never experienced arriving home to find their own groceries broken, crushed, or soaked? What’s going on (or not) in their minds when they perform this task for others?
Packing groceries ain’t rocket science. It just takes some basic common sense and a concern for others’ needs. The same thing applies to unpacking ageism. And remarkably, the same rules can be applied.
Rule #1: Don’t create impractical categories that defeat the experience at hand. Why place all glass items together in the same bag? I would bet that most households don’t assign separate spaces at home for “glass things,” “metal things,” “paper things,” and “plastic things.” Likewise, why continually segregate people in social or policy-making situations simply because of their age?
Which leads to Rule #2: Create categories and policies that are meaningful. It’s more important that glass items not collide while being transported, eggs not get crushed, and cereal boxes not get soaked due to the condensation of frozen foods. We should consider usefulness and urgency as the criteria for our decisions. We need social policies that establish a strong foundation in order to support fragile or otherwise more particular concerns. Creating all-age-friendly communities is the basis upon which we can build economic stability, physical access, social engagement, and personal productivity for all generations. And underlying that endeavor must be an awareness of ageism as a threat to those goals.
And finally, there’s Rule #3: Be willing –– and eager –– to accommodate personal needs and preferences. Maybe some people don’t mind if their eggs are placed underneath that gallon of milk. But I assure you that there are others (including you, perhaps?) who do mind. It’s easy for us to see how children can be very different from one another; consider any two siblings, for example. Why is it so hard, then, for society to understand and accept the fact that older adults vary even more greatly in their experiences, abilities, and aspirations? A commitment to promoting person-centered care in every aspect of our culture is vital to preserving the individual autonomy, dignity, and viability of all older adults. And that commitment should be made with empathy –– and enthusiasm.
Defeating ageism ain’t rocket science. It’s as easy as knowing which things go together and which don’t. And to have the common sense and decency to do a good job following through.