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What I Finally Did After Years of Internal Ageism

It changed my life. And it can change your life.

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photo collage of sad balloons looking happy on black mirror
Paul Spella
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I wake up in the middle of the night with weird knee pain. Well, it’s not pain exactly, it’s more of an inner itch and an aching. It’s uncomfortable, and this is the fifth time this week it’s happened.

Instead of scheduling an appointment with my doctor, I dismiss it as a symptom of growing older and hope it goes away on its own. This was my own internal ageism at work.

Ageism is prejudice or discrimination based on someone’s age, and internal or self-directed ageism is when you develop an age bias against yourself.

Internal ageism affects how you think, act and react. A National Poll on Healthy Aging published in 2923 found that 82 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 80 experience ageism in their daily lives, and 36 percent experience internalized ageism.

Signs of internal ageism are things like not wanting to be associated with older people, obsessing about having a youthful appearance, or feeling as if you have nothing to offer due to your age.

Negative age biases develop early. The media, in the form of animated films and cartoons, teaches young children that older people are cranky, bitter and useless. No one wants to be elderly. Old age is something to be feared rather than celebrated.

In her book Breaking the Age Code, author Becca Levy writes, “Ageism in individuals starts with the fact that we assimilate age stereotypes early in childhood, long before they become self-relevant. At this stage, we accept them without any resistance.”

I’ve never embraced my age, and even my milestone birthdays of 16, 18 and 21 were tainted with regret. When I turned 12, I was sad I wasn’t a child any longer, and on my 20th birthday, I mourned the loss of my teenage years.

I was never okay with the age I was.

A few weeks before his 68th birthday, my father had a heart attack and died while walking through a sporting goods store. I was 28 at the time and tasked with making his funeral arrangements. I became convinced I’d probably die at 67 too.

I was almost 60 when my dear friend, Cynthia, died. She, like my dad, was a few months away from turning 68. Not only did I now believe I’d die within seven years, but I thought that at 60, I was too old to do anything about it.

The internal ageism that had been lurking in the back of my psyche came to the forefront and made its presence known. When I became depressed, I considered it another side effect of aging. I was eating unhealthily like a college student, not getting enough exercise, and my confidence in my abilities was decreasing.

I enjoyed participating in storytelling shows but stopped performing because I didn’t believe I had anything that a younger audience would be interested in.

By giving in to my internal ageism, I wasn’t only accepting my decline, I was helping it along, and causing my world to narrow.

Everything changed when I read Breaking The Age Code. The primary lesson for me was that having an upbeat attitude about aging could improve your health and add 7.5 years to your life.

That’s it — just being more optimistic, and I could live to be 74 or older. There was no way to predict my death age. No matter how much life I had left, I still had so many things I wanted to accomplish and do.

Why was I giving up so easily? My mental, physical and emotional life was worth a mindset change. I needed to get rid of my negative age beliefs or at least deplete them of the power they had over me.

We all experience ageism, whether it’s internal, external or both, but there are ways to deal with ageism healthily. Becca Levy suggests the ABC Method (Awareness, Blame, and Challenge), which helps you shift from an age-declining mindset to an age-thriving one.

You can’t avoid the onslaught of ageist messages, but you can control how you react to them. Check yourself. Are you parroting ageist ideas and biases? If you’re driving and the driver in front of you is going too slowly, don’t give in to the temptation to blame their slow-poke driving on their age.

Blame ageism, don’t blame yourself for getting older. Stop accepting ageism as the status quo. When you don’t get a second job interview, don’t assume it’s because of your age — it might be external ageism at work. Remind yourself that age is only a number, not a judgment. If someone sees your age as a negative, you don’t need them in your life.

Challenge preconceived ideas about aging. Having a purpose will help keep you motivated and moving forward. Call out those companies and people who insist on perpetuating negative age stereotypes. Change the narrative of what an older person can do and the benefits of age.

You may be older, but that doesn’t mean you’re not ageist too. Do you assume things about younger people? Identify your own age biases. One way to break down an ageist viewpoint is to have friends of all ages and see how you’re not that different.

I’ve made adjustments due to my age, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any benefits to getting older. I’m certainly enjoying senior discounts at the movies. And, I’m feeling increasingly confident in all the knowledge I’ve picked up in my 62 years of life.

Have you ever experienced ageism? Let us know in the comments below.

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