Am I being ageist when I avoid addressing racist statements from my clients? For many years I dismissed the racist comments made by older adults I interacted with. I always told myself, “Oh, they’re from a different generation, they’re old and can’t change.” I would try the timid approach of pointing out my multi-cultural background or the passive-aggressive approach of a scolding look. These “tactics” accomplished nothing.
Lately, I have been asking myself this question a lot because a person I love very much sends me viral videos of older adults acting out with belligerent and racist behavior. Watching those fills me with sadness. One, the behavior is abhorrent. Two, the person, the source of the outburst looks overwhelmed. Their filters, it would appear, have disappeared.
The seniors in these videos also look scared. Instead of seeking help, they resort to lashing out; harming others and themselves. In an article for Business Insider, Lindsay Dodgson offers an explanation as to why it seems as if some older adults are more open with their racism. Much has to do with brain plasticity, fear of change and ageism.
I always have many questions as I watch these videos. How did it come to this? Are these individuals the product of an ageist society? My nearest and dearest doesn’t even send me half of the videos because Twitter tells me about the other ones.
Searching for answers, I came across a letter to the editor for the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry written by Derbajan Banergi. In it he writes:
“Pandemics have a significant psychosocial impact. Health anxiety, panic, adjustment disorders, depression, chronic stress, and insomnia are the major offshoots. Misinformation and uncertainty give rise to mass hysteria. Among them, the elderly are especially vulnerable.”
Certainly, COVID-19 has shone a glaring spotlight on the gaping holes in this country’s safety net. Vulnerable populations from the homeless, people of color, low-income individuals and families, the incarcerated, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, children to seniors are most at risk from this virus that is a long way from being contained and under control. These viral videos, which are concerning on so many levels, highlight exactly what Dr. Banergi states regarding the ability of some older adults to successfully weather a public health crisis.
Back to my nearest and dearest who isn’t convinced. The older adults, I am told, have always been racist and are now emboldened to broadcast it. The current pandemic has nothing to do with it. To some extent, he’s right. As people age, they do tend to be the same person they always were only in some cases, more so. Smartphones and social media make it easier to document these incidents.
My response is the following: the content of the video is horrible and the underlying crisis this person is going through in those instances is one that in my opinion, could have been preempted by addressing these important issues.
The first is systemic ageism. Whether it’s the not so subtle practice of pushing older workers out the door, to reducing public funds for senior centers or ignoring racist comments, society, for the most part, has done a real disservice to older adults. Miki Goerdt -LCSW, ATR-BC) writes that many times, older adults are portrayed as unhappy. These viral videos certainly do. They also perpetuate ageism in society. The image of racist, angry older adults feeds into a variety of stereotypes about seniors that are difficult to counter. Don’t forget about my nearest and dearest’s opinion.
The second issue is the possibility of enabling practices on the part of professionals who serve the senior population. Folded into systemic ageism are the biases that enable it. Every time I look at those videos, I think about all the times I dismissed racist comments made to me by older adults, offering weak suggestions that other words or thoughts might be better choices or I simply scowled. Miki Goerdt reminds us that that depression looks different in older adults. When you look at the viral videos. It’s not hard to see distress in their eyes and it’s clear they need help and probably have needed help for a long time.
The internal discussion I have is always based on the following questions. How can these people say those things to other people? Why do they think it’s ok? Have they been getting a “pass” because of their age? Is that really supporting their quality of life and building resilience? What should my role be as a responsible person and business owner?
The third issue is simply not knowing how to address racism with an elder client or family member. I have never found the best approach to address racist comments until recently. Ijeoma Oluo recommends starting from a place of empathy. Think about the process that brought you to the point of realizing that addressing racism is urgent. Start with older adults who aren’t clients. Develop your engagement skills from there. If brain plasticity can be improved by doing brain games exercises, then addressing racism with older adults should be the next crucial step to promoting life enrichment. Reduced social filters or not.
As a business owner, my mission is to promote quality of life. If I am going to be successful in my work, I need to acknowledge that people are complicated and conflicting but that I should not shy away from it. I must work to engage in a dialogue that is also life-enriching.