Discrimination Against the Aged

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Ageism is Alive & Sick


In the ten commandments the only one that contains a reward is the Fifth: Honor thy mother and thy father that thou shall live long on earth. This tenet has been long forgotten for the elderly parents and other senior citizens among us. The old are frequently treated with less than honor or respect. They are ridiculed, multitudinous jokes are made about them and they are often treated as non-persons in our society. Physicians will direct questions and answers to the younger person accompanying an elderly parent and ignore the elderly. This is very prevalent in our world. An older person who forgets his keys or a word or misplaces an object is often dubbed senile, while a youth who does this is considered a “bit forgetful”. If an older person has a vehicular accident her children may take away her keys or at least threaten to do so. If a young person is in the same predicament it is dealt with lightly with little “ado”. People generally do not ask an elderly individual for directions since they automatically assume he is too confused to respond with any veracity. Older men do not consider women the same age as themselves appealing or “sexy”. They prefer to attract younger women instead of teaming up with their same age peers. The older person is ignored, patronized, excluded, insulted and often responded to with disdain. Grandparents are only considered when they can contribute financially or physically to the needs of the younger generation and to their parents. Helplessness is ascribed to them and there are middle aged offspring who will not ride with their elderly parents since they attribute poor driving behavior to them without any valid reason. They are folks who have a conditioned case of gerontophobia – a fear and hatred of the old. They frequently treat the oldsters as if they were a contagious disease – to be avoided at any cost. They may not want to form a friendship with a senior citizen in their feeling that they will soon die anyway and they do not want to become attached lest they will suffer pain from the anticipated loss. Role reversal is another phenomenon wherein the offspring will play Mom or Dad toward their older adult parent. Widows and/or widowers are supervised by their children if they want to get serious with their newly found partner. This is done lest the older adult should remarry and the fear is that the adult children’s inheritance might shrink. When an older person is somewhat infirm the younger adults often take little regard of their condition and resent walking a bit less or a little slower to allow the older person an opportunity to accompany them and enjoy a family trip or vacation together (Only when they themselves age will they realize what all this means).

Many examples can here be given of ageism and its consequences. Ageism is present in the educated as well as those with little education. One of many examples is when a young instructor jealously shouted at a brilliant older scholar, “Are you planning to spend another fifty years in this University?” A six year old child asked a septuagenarian her age and without awaiting an answer followed with the answer: “Are you almost a hundred?” In the child this was meant without malice; in the former case it was a denigration and an attempt to level the older man’s self worth and to minimize this gentleman’s accomplishments. At the same time, the young instructor would enjoy having his colleague squirm and possibly consider retirement to “make room for the young”. 

In contemplating all that has here been said we as a society must rethink our attitudes as Jews and as human beings. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. We must remember we who are here now are or will become the older generation in the not too far distant future. We came from our ancestors, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Sarah, who were once young and also became old.


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap.

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