VOICES: Ageism is the ‘ism’ we aren’t talking about

Older adults are still are  part of Air Force manpower. (Metro News Service photo)
Older adults are still are part of Air Force manpower. (Metro News Service photo)

Note from Community Impact Editor Amelia Robinson: This guest opinion column by Noreen Willhelm appeared on the Ideas and Voices page Tuesday, Oct. 27. Guest columns are submitted or requested fact-based opinion pieces typically of 300 to 450 words.

You would think that, as a society that may finally be reckoning with centuries of racism, gender discrimination and inequality, we’d try to avoid adding new “isms” to the mix.

Noreen Willhelm is a former food server, journalist, nonprofit director, community organizer, and sometime-farmer. She is the senior fellow with The Dayton Foundation's Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative, working with incredibly talented, formerly retired, older adults.
Noreen Willhelm is a former food server, journalist, nonprofit director, community organizer, and sometime-farmer. She is the senior fellow with The Dayton Foundation's Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative, working with incredibly talented, formerly retired, older adults.

Yet, ageism seems to be having its heyday. We no longer think jokes based on race, gender, or national heritage are funny, yet who hasn’t seen, sent or received a birthday card celebrating someone’s ascent to the hill of 40, 50 or 60, after which the only path is down?

ExploreIDEAS: What if you are wrong about masks?

A Bloomberg.com opinion piece this week looks at Japan as a harbinger for the world and posits that “Old Age Is the Next Global Economic Threat.”

The answer, it suggests, is robots and automation to counter “a dwindling pool of working-age Japanese people is forced to support an expanding pool of gray-haired consumers.” Yikes!

We no longer think jokes based on race, gender, or national heritage are funny, yet who hasn’t seen, sent or received a birthday card celebrating someone’s ascent to the hill of 40, 50 or 60, after which the only path is down?

- Noreen Willhelm

There is so much wrong with that. It is what geriatrician William H. Thomas calls a “declinist” view of life. A view that says everything about getting older is negative, a reduction from what the “prime” of life offers. It’s a view that fails to value decades of experience, accumulated wisdom, and talents honed over a lifetime.

Older adults are not just consumers; people 55 and older will make up 25% of the U.S. workforce by 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

ExploreRestaurants caught in the middle on mask mandate

People stay in the workforce beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is they still have much to contribute. Americans who reach 65 are likely to live at least another 20 years and for many, that’s an opportunity to serve their communities in new roles, paid and unpaid.

In Dayton, thanks to support from The Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Healthcare Fund, recently retired professionals are being employed as Del Mar Encore Fellows, working with area nonprofits to solve big problems.

Most recently, one of those fellows working with the Area Agency on Aging developed a job training program to turn restaurant and hospitality workers unemployed by the pandemic into personal care workers, filling a gaping community need.

Another fellow is working with the Dayton Metro Library, to expand the number of branches with a Rock Your Homework program and the number of volunteers trained to help.

The solution to the aging of the country isn’t to gin up fear; it’s to figure out better ways to use the wide range of talents that older people have to offer.

And besides, what’s the problem with gray hair? With luck, we all earn it.

Noreen Willhelm is a former food server, journalist, nonprofit director, community organizer, and sometime-farmer. She is the senior fellow with The Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative, working with incredibly talented, formerly retired, older adults.

In Other News