The very week I was assigned this article, while my husband Barry and I were visiting the Oregon Coast, I was presented with an opportunity to reflect on ageism. One morning, on a trail to a beach, I walked ahead while Barry lingered in our van for a few minutes. While walking down, I passed two women heading up the trail, both pausing to tell me that the path further along was steep. As it turned out, the trail was moderately steep for just a few yards, nothing to warrant a comment. Later, I asked Barry if anyone had said anything to him about the trail. Nope, no one had mentioned it.
The women were trying to be kind, of course. But why did they seek to be kind with me, and not with Barry?
An hour later, on our return, Barry was ahead of me by several minutes. A couple who looked to be in their 60s were walking down. As the man passed me, he turned and gave me a gentle assist. “I bet you wouldn’t have done that to my husband,” I said. “Haha,” he laughed nervously. “Very funny.”
“I don’t mean because you’re both men,” I said, “but because people assume that women need help and that men don’t.” After they quietly carried on, I wondered if my comment would stop him from offering such “help” to women again.
“Three experiences in one morning!” I said to Barry later.
He and I have been active travelers for almost 50 years. From the very beginning, men (and sometimes women) have made sexist comments to me that they’ve never said to him — comments that in the last 20 years, have also become ageist. I find it odd that I am the one who receives these comments, because Barry, at 5 feet, 7 inches tall is nine years older than me. It’s true he’s very limber; he can skip down a trail like a goat, while I, at 5 foot, 1 inch tall am slightly more cautious, because of a former ankle injury. But we’re both trim and in excellent condition.
However, no one in our 45 years of hiking and bicycling together has ever offered him advice, told him what equipment he should be using, corrected his technique, asked him if he wanted help, or, worse, physically intervened on his behalf — which, rather than “helping,” I consider in rescuing, or even infantilizing. All of these have happened to me more times than I can count, ironically often by people who are in much worse physical shape than I am.
Since neither ageism nor sexism seems to be going away, at least not in my lifetime, I’ve had to learn to address these issues through a range of strategies. Here are 11 ways I’ve responded:
1. Bring It Up Directly
This is what I did with the man on the trail. The only potential snag with this approach is that you’re sometimes accused of being “oversensitive” or “overreacting.” Instead of arguing, I just shrug and say, “Could be.”
2. Find An Ally
Ideally, it’s a member of the gender that offends — occasionally a woman, but in my experience, much more likely a man. Recently, when we had dinner with a couple we met in Seattle, I appreciated Barry saying afterward, “It annoyed me the way the guy kept “mansplaining” to the woman.” (The word comes from the book Men Explain Things to Me, where author Rebecca Solnit described a party in which a man she met lectured her at length on a book she herself had written!)
3. Lighten Up
What someone else thinks of us is none of our business. You can try to educate people from time to time, but if you’re like me, you’ll get exhausted if you challenge every comment you hear. Lightening up, however, is my biggest challenge by far. You’d think by now I’d be used to these comments, but I’m still not able to shrug them off easily.
4. Use Snarky Humor
Barry and I were cycling up a steep 3-mile winding road in the Bay Area with two Australian guys we had met at the bottom of the hill. When we reached the top, one of them looked at me and said pointedly, “You did quite well.”
“Thanks,” I said, and then, just as pointedly, “So did you.” As we sped away, he looked decidedly grumpy. Later Barry and I had a good laugh about it.
5. Reverse Roles
On a hike, people frequently say to me: “Looking good!” “Not far now!” You may be thinking, “But what’s wrong with that?” Am I indeed being oversensitive? As I see it, if everyone is offered encouragement, great. But if one person is encouraged, but no one else is, it’s condescending. No one ever makes remarks like these to Barry.
After I heard several “encouraging” comments on a particular trail, I told Barry, “I’m going to say something like that to the next person I meet.” It turned out to be two women with a dog. “Looking good!” I said to them, “Not far now!” One stared at me tight-lipped and said in a chilly tone, “I know the area well. I grew up here.”
Yes, I’m part of the problem when I do that, which is why I don’t make a practice of it. But just that once, it felt liberating.
6. Recognize The Role Of Culture
In many cross-cultural situations, people are simply following their particular traditions and expressing respect. An Indian guy I once spoke with was astounded when I told him I didn’t appreciate people helping me without asking first. “But in my culture, we are taught to respect our elders,” he protested, which I understand, although I didn’t especially like the implication that I was an “elder,” at the sprightly age of 65.
7. Affirm When People Aren’t Ageist
I was carrying my rented paddleboard back to the shop in La Paz, Baja, when another tourist asked, “Want some help?” I said, “Thanks, I’m fine. But I appreciate your offering, rather than just helping me without asking first.”
“Oh,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
“No, no, don’t apologize!” I replied. “You did great! You asked, rather than rescued. Big difference.”
8. Actively Stop People From Helping
Barry and I were climbing the city wall that surrounds the old city of Cartagena, Colombia. While he sped up the wall, two blondes, obviously tourists, came running over and started helping me. “Stop it!” I said. “I want to do it myself!” They may have thought I was rude, but sometimes firmly resisting is the only way I know to keep people from invading my boundaries.
9. Recognize Your Internal Ageism
In the case of the women rescuing me in Cartagena, why was I so bothered? Because I wanted to be perceived as a 30 or 40-year-old, and I don’t like it when people treat me as though I’m old. Seniors are respected in many cultures, but not in the U.S. Unfortunately, I’ve incorporated the negative messages about aging that permeate our society, and challenging those cultural beliefs is my ongoing work.
10. Remember It Works Both Ways
While the word “ageism” usually brings to mind seniors, it can also apply to younger people. For instance, an employer who thinks a job candidate looks too young for a job is expressing ageism.
11. Funnel Your Frustration Into Creativity
I’ve channeled my anger into countless letters to the editor, poetry, and articles — some, like this one, where I get paid. A little vindication goes a long way!
Like it or not, the older I get, the more opportunities I’ll have to respond to ageist remarks. And the only thing I can change is myself — which isn’t that easy! If I get annoyed, I’ll try to remember that, at 70, I’m happier in body and soul than ever. As the saying goes, “The best revenge is a life well lived.”