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Ageism

Not just a year older – a year better!

June 6, 2022 Ciril Godec, MD
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Dr. Ciril Godec

A few days ago, my friend and I were installing a water jet fountain in the pond next to our house. We have a pontoon to help us transport the jet fountain to the middle of the pond. The task requires at least two people, one to guide the rope on the pontoon and the other on the shore to pull the pontoon towards the middle of the pond. It was my job to pull. I had on my winter outfit as it was still quite cool, with high rubber boots in case I would step in the water. Good premonition. While pulling the pontoon from the vantage point of a large rock, I slipped and fell into deep water, completely submerging and even swallowing a few gulps of pond water. The water was still very cold! I was cursing and laughing at the same time while climbing out of the pond. My wife and our friend were concerned, but then laughed with relief as they helped me out of the pond.  While I ran for a hot shower, our friend and my wife finished installing the fountain without further problems.

When I returned, our friend politely suggested that I might be a little old for the job. That started me thinking. My age had nothing to do with what had just happened. It could happen to anyone, young or old. My friend did not mean to offend me, yet his benevolent suggestion still gave me the feeling of ageism.

What is ageism? In the Oxford dictionary it is defined as prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age.

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Most of the time we are not even aware that we are discriminating against people based on age, but it pervades our society in daily interactions.

Before retirement, I was a practicing urological surgeon and I know that in the past, and even now, some patients are declared not fit for surgery based solely on their age. That is ageism, well ingrained in our culture. You probably have heard “wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone,” or “the silver tsunami.” Maybe both statements have some hidden ageism; you be the judge.

Some well meaning people hold the belief that older people can no longer learn new things, that they are slow and should retire after a certain age, even if they would like to stay and are fully capable of doing their job. If age is the only reason to force retirement, even if someone is mentally and physically able to do the work, that’s ageism; it happens all the time.

Some older people enjoy continuing to work and contributing to their community and society. Our neighbor in upstate New York is ninety and still works daily, helping neighbors build or repair their homes and mowing lawns. Every day after work he has an open house for friends to drop in for a drink and camaraderie. Not infrequently my wife and I join him on his porch in the late afternoon for a Manhattan.

Some of the most prominent people in the US are around 85: Rupert Murdoch, Toni Morrison, George Soros, Warren Buffet. Many of our politicians are no longer young: President Biden is 79, former President Trump 75, Nancy Pelosi 82, Bernie Sanders 80, and Dianne Feinstein, the oldest senator, 88. If they can perform their job, let them work; if not, they can always stop and retire.

The experience that comes with older age can foster creativity. The average age of Nobel Prize winners is 65 – not that young.

Ageism is probably the most pervasive social prejudice in our society today. If an older person forgets something, it’s due to age; but if that happens to a younger person, it is normal forgetfulness, maybe just an occasional “senior moment.”

We all know some people with an exceptional memory. Most of the time they are not born with it, but with practice they made their memory exceptional. Memory is malleable and we can preserve and augment it with practice. Aristotle said, “You are what you repeatedly do”. Practice, practice! That’s how you come to Carnegie Hall. Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist, performed well into his nineties. He was practicing every day, and his playing remained unsurpassed to the very end of his life. Our brain can generate new brain cells well into old age, and the more we use our brain, the better is brain function preserved.

Ageism is not found everywhere in the world, especially not in Japan, where people live the longest in the world. More centenarians and super-centenarians live in Japan than anywhere else on earth; their culture promotes positive thinking about aging. The Japanese treat older age as something to honor and enjoy. They celebrate Age Day as a major national holiday every third Monday of September. Nobody works on that day; rather, they all are visiting elderly relatives. They know that they can still learn a lot from their elders, that from their past they can learn strategies for handling daily challenges. Intergenerational households, especially those with grandparents involved in childcare, promote more positive age belief for all generations.

We as a society should be proud of our seniors. Just becoming a senior is a personal success. A few years ago when I gave a lecture at the Cancer Center at the New Delhi Medical School in India, I observed that the first row in the auditorium was all occupied by senior physicians. In India old age is treated with great respect. In India Alzheimer disease is five times less frequent than in the US; maybe the difference is due not just to turmeric; maybe there is some connection to societal regard/appreciation.

Positive attitude matters. Positive thinking about age definitely makes us younger. Numerous studies show that persons with a positive attitude toward aging have longer and healthier lives.

Many older couples look towards the future, reflecting on the Robert Browning poem: “Grow old along with me/ The best is yet to be.”

Dr. Ciril Godec is Professor of Urology at Downstate Medical Center and was chairman of the Department of Urology at Long Island College Hospital for thirty years. He recently retired and is an honorary staff member at Maimonides Medical Center, where he served as Urology Residency Director and later Deputy Director of Urology since 2013. He is also a Board member at Cobble Hill Health Center.

Dr. Godec, who just celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday this past Valentine’s Day, is currently co-authoring his third book, “How to Declare Aging a Disease.”


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