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Too young, too old, or just a woman? How to fight stereotypes of 'gendered ageism'

Gerontologists Jeanette Leardi, 70, of Portland, Oregon, and Christina Peoples, 34, of Greensboro, North Carolina. (Courtesy)
Gerontologists Jeanette Leardi, 70, of Portland, Oregon, and Christina Peoples, 34, of Greensboro, North Carolina. (Courtesy)

It’s no secret that in 2022, women still face sexism.

But as they get older, they also face something called gendered ageism: discrimination based on their age. It impacts a woman’s professional growth, her physical health and her emotional wellbeing.

Aging experts say intergenerational conversations are one solution to support women as they age and reframe how our culture thinks about getting older.

Here & Now host Deepa Fernandes takes this advice to heart, bringing together two gerontologists to share their perspectives: 34-year-old Christina Peoples of Greensboro, North Carolina and 70-year-old Jeanette Leardi of Portland, Oregon.

Leardi says she has personally experienced ageism and sexism in several ways.

When she was in her 20s, people considered her “too young” to understand certain things. Then as she has gotten older, the other end of ageism kicked in.

“For example, I’m at a supermarket where a cashier, who’s much younger than me, will say, ‘Did you find everything you need, young lady?’ And I have gray hair. I have obviously gray hair. So I’ll say to the person, ‘Do you have any eye problems? I’m actually an old person and I’m okay with that. And you know what? You can be okay with that, too,’” she says. “It’s a two-edged sword, and it’s what I call ‘aging while female’ and we endure that all throughout our lives.”

Leardi’s work focuses on how ageism impacts the social aspect of our lives.

“When people talk down to someone like me because they assume I can’t hear well, or that I don’t understand things, or they act overly sweet to me calling me ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie,’ those are demeaning ways of looking at older adults,” she says. “And the ironic thing is that as we age, we become more different from one another. So people should never be making assumptions about a person based on what group they seem to belong to. But, it is especially more frequent as we age.”

Peoples says she sees gendered ageism play out over the responsibilities that society places on women, both older and younger.

“For an older woman, there’s the responsibility of being a nurturer, a caregiver and all of these roles, right? For a younger woman, there’s this expectation that we should be wanting to have children and we should be wanting to be married. We should have all of these goals that are centered with us nurturing and caring for people,” she says. “As you continue aging, you have all of these expectations of you. And then that has an effect on our health, how well we live, our finances, our roles at work and our families.”

As a Black woman, Peoples says she does not see many women of color in her field.

There’s a handful. And that is something that I’m looking forward to seeing grow,” she says. “I know we exist, but we don’t see a lot of women of color being highlighted in the field of aging. And we need those voices because when it comes to being able to relate to someone in order to receive information, encouragement at times, it helps when there’s a person that you can relate to.”

Negative feelings around aging can start showing up early in a child’s life, which Leardi says is a key reason for younger people and older people to have interactions and relationships. She points to an early example of ageism in schools, where teachers will have kids dress up as a person who is 100 years old to mark the 100th day of school.

We gerontologists are actively working to discourage [this] in schools,” she says. “Instead, some schools are doing activities like, put a penny in a jar every day and at the end of 100 days, look at what 100 pennies look like so that it really reflects aging as a cumulative process.”

Ageism persists in society because people tend to see it as nothing but deterioration and decline, Leardi says.

“What people do not understand, and this is what I love to teach about, are the changes in the older adult brain,” she says. “Yes, we lose certain capacities of short-term memory and speed of processing, how fast we can react to certain things, but we actually gain other skills that we couldn’t possibly get when we were younger.”

Leardi points to the example of how both sides of our brain are connected by a tissue called the corpus callosum that matures as people age and by the time we reach our 50s, it allows them to use both sides of their brain simultaneously more often.

“What that means is that older adults tend to see the grayness of issues. Things are not as clearly one way or the other. We tend to see the ‘what ifs,’” she says. “Younger brains have their skills, have their advantages, and so do older brains. And that’s why it’s important for young and old people to interact constantly.”

Fernandes closes the conversation with Leardi and Peoples asking if they have any questions for each other.

Leardi wonders how Peoples sees herself changing as a gerontologist as she gets older. Peoples says she sees herself holding her title in the field of aging with more confidence.

“There’s so much more room for it to grow,” Peoples says. “And just continuing to connect with people of all ages. I have friends in their 70s, in their 60s and their 50s. I want that to continue and just … bringing to light how we are all aging and there are ways that we can do this the way we want to do it.”

Peoples asks Leardi what tips she has for anyone as they continue aging and navigating all the intersections that come about.

No matter how old we are — but especially as we get older — we should investigate in our own minds what we think about getting older, Leardi says.

“If we ourselves believe that getting older is a bad thing, then that’s going to affect the way we see the world and interact with other people. Like, ‘I don’t want to go to this party. I may be the only old person there’ kind of thing. So first of all, we need to just get it straight in our brains, what we think about aging and to develop a positive attitude about it,” Leardi says. “Then the other thing is to advocate for ourselves, to be brave. When a situation comes up, we can gently correct someone else if we feel that we are being put down as an older person.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Locke also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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