Ageism and Social Insecurity

Right after this New Year, when we all became a year older, a headline in the January 3rd Chicago Tribune grabbed my attention.

“Congress problem? Aging America. Budget debate is really about the needs of baby boomers vs. younger generations: Safety needs for seniors vs. jobs, education.”

This was quite unsettling. If I personalize this to my own life, does this suggest that I someday will have to make a Draconian choice between using our just-enough savings for the comfortable retirement we long planned for, or using it for our children and grandchildren around the world?

More recently, the February 15th Wall Street Journal Opinion page headlined “Generational Theft Needs to Be Arrested”. We over 65ers were accused of being thieves who need to find ways of returning the benefits we’ve received.

Shortly thereafter, the respected columnist Thomas Friedman in the February 17, 2013 New York Times article “How to Unparalyze Us”, claimed that we’re on track to favor nursing homes over nursing schools. So, again, the projection is that vulnerable children will be hurt in the future unless we over 65ers are willing to give up something.

I know these headlines and articles are selective. But they seem more and more common. If they’re meant to provoke some guilt, at least for me, it’s not working. It’s making me angry. And anxious.

I’m already spending much more on healthcare than I expected to, even
though my health has not worsened.

I sense scapegoating and smell a rat. That rat is ageism.

The term “ageism” was coined in 1969, following the civil rights movements
against racism and sexism. Like those isms, ageism seems to still be alive and well.

Many elderly, their savings dramatically cut or stalled due to the economic recession, have encountered unexpected obstacles in the workplace in retaining their jobs or finding new ones. Despite legal prohibitions, I found it in my own academic workplace. More and more, older faculty quietly seemed to disappear, including myself. In a cost conscious institution, money was saved on our higher salaries, higher healthcare costs, lesser productivity, and greater resistance to change. Ageism in action.

Despite claims that Medicare and Social Security benefits for those over 65 are too costly, my experience as a clinical psychiatrist was that the opposite may be the case. I did not take much care of the elderly, in part because my institution felt that the reimbursement was way too low. How could $25 for a medication review of an elderly patient, when a typical case included medical complications and concerned family members, be appropriate and adequate? Of course, the very wealthy could self-pay and find a psychiatrist who did not participate in Medicare.

The psychological aspects, both conscious and unconscious, of ageism have been studied in depth over the last two decades by the Yale geropsychologist, Becca Levy, Ph.D. (Among her numerous studies and writings, see “Stereotype Embodiment: A Psychological Approach to Aging” for a summary of the research). The results from numerous studies seem startling, at least from my read, for their health and mental health repercussions. For example, as an isolated variable, those with more positive views of their own aging lived over seven years longer than those with negative views. On the other side of the coin, correlates with negative views of aging included worse memory, hearing loss, and cardiovascular problems. Of course the causal process may go in both directions (poorer health may clearly cause negative views of aging), but the findings are still striking.

The paradox may be that if we make over 65ers feel more financially secure  and more valued for their life and wisdom, they may be more “generous” in terms of intergenerational equity concerns. Ageism seems to correlate with social insecurity, worsening health, and, in my view, less readiness to consider re-equilibration of resource allocation to the elderly and the young.

Trying to take something away from me that I think I need will usually make me try to hold on with an even tighter grip. When I feel secure, it’s easier to let go. That seems to be human nature.

H. Steve Moffic, M.D., 66, recently retired from clinical practice. He identifies himself as “psychiatric gadfly.”