PUMPING IRONY: The Power of Suggestion

Ageist stereotyping can drag geezers down, so it’s important to create a strong sense of self that can carry you through.

Ruth Lamont
Lamont: Stereotypes can have a powerful influence on old folks.

I was reclining in the comfy chair at my dentist’s office the other day, my aging choppers freshly cleaned by the efficient and chatty hygienist, when my dentist arrived to have a look. She’s quite a bit younger than me, but not so much that I should appear ancient by comparison. Still, she greeted me as if I was not all there.

“HELLO, MR. COX. HOW ARE YOU TODAY!!”

“Um, fine.”

“THAT’S GREAT! LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT THESE TEETH!”

By the time we were finished, I felt 20 years older.

Now, to be fair, I do have some hearing issues, but she didn’t know that. She was just assuming that this geezer, like all geezers, needed a little more volume.

We are all susceptible to knuckling under to stereotypes. Kids who are treated like thugs tend to act that way, even if it’s against their better nature. And old folks who are treated like decrepit husks of their former selves more often than not will find themselves descending to that level, at least temporarily.

I’m not sure exactly why this is, but I know it’s happened to me. On the tennis court, my (relatively) young nemesis, The Baseline Machine, is in the habit of reminding me of my advanced middle age, a ploy that invariably leads to weak serves, putrid volleys, and an avalanche of lost points. In other words, I start playing like an old man because TBM gets me thinking I am an old man. (It can’t be about talent, right?)

Negative Age Stereotypes

And there’s fresh research to back this up. In England, University of Kent scientists conducted a meta-analysis of 37 previous studies and found that geezers were particularly susceptible to “negative age stereotypes”. As lead researcher Ruth Lamont noted in a statement released by the university, “. . . even subtle differences in the way people behave toward older people — such as being patronizing or speaking slowly — could be enough to make them underperform when others are testing their abilities, either formally or informally.”

One of the things I really like about going to the gym to work out is the anonymity of it all. I just go through my routine without any interaction. Nobody’s telling me what they think I’m capable of doing — or not doing — because of some perception of my age-related limitations. And what happens as a result is that I can sometimes push through those limitations.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t some youngster over there bench pressing 250 who thinks I’m this close to cardiac arrest, it just means nobody’s treating me overtly like I’m too old to be there. Nobody’s messing with my normally delusional sense of myself as a freak of nature who’s defying all stereotypes of aging boomers.

That’s a stereotype too, I suppose. But it’s mine. And I’m OK with that.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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