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We need a new Surgeon General’s warning: 'Ageism is dangerous to your health'

Ageism against older Americans is one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination. But watch yourself, or I'll whip open my Jitterbug phone and call you out.

Steven Petrow
Opinion columnist

Old people seem very “in” these days.

The hit Netflix series “The Kominsky Method” features Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret and a dizzying roster of 70-plus guest stars living out comedic scenarios about their golden years. The just-released “Queen Bees” takes us on a journey back into high school dramas, except this time the school cafeteria is a senior residence dining hall, with Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, Jane Curtin and – again – Ann-Margret.

They are all funny, charming, engaging … and often the butt of a joke.

Such humor isn’t limited to either the big or small screen. Since turning 60 three years ago I’ve been the recipient of a number of “funny” memes that are in fact anything but. Here are two examples of what I’ve been sent: “When Grandma decided to unfriend someone” depicts a little old lady taking a bottle of white-out  to paint over her friend’s name on her phone because we’re all tech nincompoops. Or one boasting of a "TV tray for Seniors," and shows an older fellow with the toilet seat around his neck as he eats his dinner off the toilet seat cover.

Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret attend a screening of "The Kominsky Method" in Hollywood, Calif., in 2018.

Even "Saturday Night Live" got into the act not long ago with its sketch showcasing the “Amazon Echo Silver,” designed for “the greatest generation,” which answers to any name close to Alexa, like Allegra, Anita or Angela, because, you know, old people can’t remember things properly.

All of which prompts me to ask: Why is it OK to make fun of older people?

End the 'over the hill' jokes

Ageism, it turns out, is one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination. We know it's wrong to make jokes about race, gender and sexual or gender identity – but older people, hey, we’re fair game.

As the authors of "The Humor Code" posited, “Humor arises when something that is unsettling, threatening or wrong (i.e., a violation) simultaneously seems acceptable, safe or okay (i.e., benign).” Put another way: Who among us isn’t afraid of what we imagine our “sunset” or “golden” years will be like? At the same time, what’s the risk of making fun of older people? Not much. We fall and can’t get up (the tag line for Life Alert, a medical alert necklace) or we might pull out one of those Jitterbug phones and call you out.

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Older people are discriminated against when it comes to employment and health care. In addition to the obvious ill effects of that discrimination, ageism can also “negatively affect (our) health and well-being,” according to a 2020 study from the National Poll on Healthy Aging. The study describe “everyday ageism,” which is about our insidious exposure to ageist beliefs, assumptions and stereotypes.

The Home Instead Senior Care in Victorville is seeking to fill 35 permanent CAREGiver positions in the area.

More than 80% of older Americans "reported regularly experiencing at least one form of everyday ageism in their day-to-day lives,” the study reports. Even worse, 4 in 10 said they regularly experience three or more forms of everyday ageism, which includes hearing, seeing or reading jokes about old age, aging or older people – specifically that we’re unattractive or undesirable. It makes you think in a new light about all those old-people birthday cards with their over-the-hill jokes. Ha ha, right?

Two-edged sword

In real life, I was on a first date recently and the ice-breaker question, which came after I described my work as a columnist, public speaker and author of a new book, shocked me: When do I plan to retire? Really, that’s the first thing someone wants to know about me? Maybe he should have just asked whether my Viagra prescription is up to date.

Case closed:My dad was an IRS tax man. The job is more dangerous than it looks.

Why does all this matter? Well, for starters, adults who experience this kind of casual ageism are more likely to suffer from chronic health condition such as diabetes or heart disease. They are also more likely to report symptoms of depression and other mental health issues.

“The more people run into ageist thinking and age discrimination, the more they start to second-guess their abilities, get depressed, and generally have more negative attitudes,” Alison Bryant, AARP’s senior vice president for research, told me.

But here’s what really shocked me: Those people who hold “negative views about their own aging … live on average 7.5 years less than people with positive attitudes," according to the World Health Organization. 

I’ve been unknowingly complicit in all this. For a long time I’ve sent “funny” birthday cards to my 50-plus friends, like the one that read: “I don’t know how much time you have left so I’ll keep this brief. Happy Birthday.” I’ve told friends that they don’t look their age – as if their age were a bad thing. And since my divorce I've lied about my real age on all those dating apps.

Steven Petrow

COVID-19, no surprise, didn’t do any favors for those of us of a certain age. The National Poll on Healthy Aging found that nearly 20% of those over 50 said their overall mental health had worsened since it had begun, reporting troubles with sleep and depression.

Nearly half of those respondents said they regularly felt stressed and isolated – both of which are harmful for overall health. And who, among the younger and older, didn’t miss the public health message that those 60-plus were so much more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus?

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For those of us approaching (or living in) our older years, the humor directed at us is a two-edged sword. Yes, it’s important to be able to laugh at our foibles (such as the time I colored my hair and wound up looking like a trashy secretary from Staten Island, according to my best friend), take the colonoscopies with a grain of salt (or a large bottle of MiraLAX), even tease one another over the sags and swells in our bodies.

Making age itself a joke, however, is no laughing matter. That’s why I think it’s time for a Surgeon General’s warning, one that declares: “Ageism is dangerous to your health.”

Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books. His new book, "Stupid Things I Won't Do When I Get Old," was published this week. Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow