We need to talk about internalized ageism

Hey so we need to talk about death and dying. And not like in the fun way.

Okay besties. Confession time: I think about death a lot, and I’m sure many other Youth Afflicted with Existential Ennui do too. As the one inevitable fact of life, I’m fascinated with how ill-prepared our society is with death.

It seems like we spend a lot of time trying not to think about death. As a Western society, we will go to incredible lengths to delicately skirt around death: we use abstractions, we soften with euphemisms and expressions, and we tell our kids the dog is taking a sabbatical at the butterfly farm. Even in media, death isn’t taken that seriously. Just think about all the fake “deaths” in the MCU.

I feel like internalized ageism has something to do with our death-denial. Internalized ageism is the fear of aging and becoming older, and I think a lot of our fears around getting older make sense. And I have a whole list of fears. Some of them come with the physical changes in our biology: getting sick, no longer being as mobile, or needing help with my day-to-day activities. Others are about changing social dynamics, such as being alone and not having anyone to rely on. But more concerningly, I’m scared about the societal loss of privilege that comes with losing one’s youth and inherent attractiveness and desirability. These fears are rightly terrifying, because these are the consequences of the society we have collectively built.

Do we realize that many of these outcomes are determined by how we as a society respond to and treat older adults? If we don’t have a robust and equitable healthcare system, how can we assume that we will get the treatment we need in a timely manner? If we don’t have long-term care systems in place, such as adequate family, home, and nursing services, respite care, and paid care leave*, how can we be confident that we will be taken care of? If we choose to isolate the elderly into nursing homes, how can we expect to maintain our friendships and sense of communities when it’s our turn? If we continue to emphasize personal self-sufficiency, autonomy, and beauty, how can we adjust when we eventually lose them? Do we, as young people today, realize that we are creating the broken systems that will care for us tomorrow?

We cannot live in a society where worthiness is derived from beauty, youth, and self-capability, because ageism stems from neoliberal, capitalist, and colonial values of utility, where people only have value based on what they can provide. We cannot live in a society where we die alone in hospital beds instead of being surrounded by our loved ones, because ageism emerges from the lack of intergenerational relationship-building. Maybe we’re not scared of getting older, but actually scared of the way our society treats the elderly.

If we don’t talk about aging, we become unprepared for it. We don’t save for our retirements**, we delay writing our wills***, we don’t advocate for better care systems, and we don’t build relationships — until it’s too late. As someone whose Asian heritage deeply values and respects elders, I find our society’s insistence on separating seniors deeply concerning. In many Indigenous cultures, aging is also highly valued and respected. Deconstructing our own internalized ageisms is a way of decolonizing our society. We need to analyze what preconceptions we have about aging, and try to confront them.

These little moments of internalized ageism are all around us. I think we can see a bit of societally-accepted internalized ageism in all the ways we try to hide aging, whether it be through anti-aging and anti-wrinkle cosmetics or dyeing grey hairs. It’s the way we value youthfulness and youth culture, like when I’m complimented about my baby face or how there are very few older adults represented in the media. It’s how even the word “senior” carries a certain air of negativity. It’s the so-called “gay death” when you turn 30.

I think we can reframe aging, and getting older. There’s so much beauty and strength in experiences and wisdom, of having weathered the storm of life and love and mistakes, of being a lighthouse guiding boats to the shore, a beacon of mentorship cutting through the fog of life. We hate thinking about our mortality, how today could be our last. Maybe we take life a bit for granted as a result. Let us stop treating aging like a curse and a disease, but as a beautiful and natural process. Let us build lighthouses, instead of coffins.

*According to OECD.org, Belgium provides the “longest publicly paid leave, for a maximum of 12 months”. In Canada, the Family Caregiver Benefit for Adults provides up to 15 weeks of leave, up to 55% of your pay, for care towards a critically ill or injured adult.
**A 2018 CIBC poll found that 32% of Canadians between 45–64 have nothing saved for retirement.
***According to LegalWills.ca only half of Canadians over 65+ have an up-to-date will.

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he/him. human geographer, writer, journalist, thot theorist, 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 quirky twink, force of chaos, plant parent, and activist 🏳️‍🌈

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Victor Yin

Victor Yin

he/him. human geographer, writer, journalist, thot theorist, 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 quirky twink, force of chaos, plant parent, and activist 🏳️‍🌈

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