Ageism Robs Society of Knowledge

by Larry P. Johnson

Reprinted from “The San Antonio Express-News, January 5, 2019.

(Editor’s Note: Larry Johnson is an author and motivational speaker. He is available as a luncheon speaker and workshop presenter. Contact him via email,, or visit his website,


“You don’t look your age.” Has this ever been said to you? Well, it certainly has been to me, and more times than I care to remember. I guess it is intended to be a compliment. But I’m tempted to reply: “How am I supposed to look?”

There was a popular radio show back in the 1940s called “The Life of Riley.” One of the characters was Digby “Digger” O’Dell, the “friendly undertaker.” He would always greet Riley with “You’re looking fine, Riley, very … natural.”

When I was 19, I wanted to look 21. Now that I’m in my 80s, how do I want to look? Do I really want to look younger? My hair is white, but I have few wrinkles in my face and I don’t yet walk with a stoop. Young people talk about wanting to be grown up, while older people talk wistfully about what it was like when they were young.

Ashton Applewhite in her book “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism” writes, “We do worry about some aspects of getting old: running out of money, getting sick, or ending up alone.” These are legitimate concerns. Our lives do change as we get older. She concedes that some folks do acquire chronic illnesses but learn to adapt and live with them. “Even as age strips us of things we cherish — physical strength, beloved friends, toned flesh — we grow more content.” We discover what’s important and what’s not. Is life more fun as we get older? Applewhite says yes. “As we realize that life is getting shorter, we savor it more.”

What about people in nursing homes or those with chronic illnesses? She tells us that just 4 percent of people older than 65 live in nursing homes and only 10 percent of those over 85. “Half of persons over 85 can go about their daily lives without any personal assistance,” she writes. Well, that’s certainly encouraging to know. I just celebrated my 85th.

Yet, aging is not easy, she points out. American culture is youth-centered. There are many prejudices: “Older people are too slow, forgetful, more likely to get sick or have a fall.” However, excluding older people from decision-making robs society of an immense amount of knowledge and experience. Diversity means including people of different races, genders, abilities and sexual orientation. What about older people? Shouldn’t age also be a criterion?

Applewhite says ageism is prejudice toward people based on their age. It’s not about how we look; it’s about how people who are younger treat us. They discount older people as “over the hill” or “old-fashioned” and relegate them to less meaningful jobs as greeters, custodians or volunteers.

Age is a continuum. Instead of “aging in place,” Applewhite suggests, “why not say living in place?” Living where we want to for as long as we are able. Everyone is aging. Let us make our community, our state, our country an age-friendly environment.

Do you bristle if offered a seat on the bus or the senior menu at a restaurant? Are you embarrassed by your age? “Concealing or disavowing our age gives that number power over us,” Applewhite writes. “Accepting our age paves the way to acknowledging it as an accomplishment to be claimed with pride.”

So, the next time someone says to you, “You look great for your age,” just smile and say, “You look great for your age, too.”

And that’s how I see it.