Margaret Morganroth Gullette | g Force

Ageism and all its false fears

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
June 20, 2011

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Q: You wrote a piece in The New York Times last month headlined “Our Irrational Fear of Forgetting.’’ What makes you think our fear is often out of sync with reality?

A: About 28 percent of people who go to memory-loss clinics for diagnosis don’t have any cognitive difficulty. I think that is a striking statistic, because it indicates that people are more worried than they need to be.

Q: You argue that our fear of Alzheimer’s disease is driving our fear of aging. Why do you think people are so worried about developing Alzheimer’s, which effects about 1 in 8 people over 65 but is feared by nearly everyone?

A: The Alzheimer’s Association was in the 1980s very successful at bringing the risks and the terrors of Alzheimer’s to a general population. Its motive was excellent: It wanted to raise funding for medical research and potentially a cure. But while the scientists are trolling through the brain, we need to reduce our terror of forgetfulness. Aging may have fearful components, but many people who think that they have it don’t have it, they have something else, or they don’t have anything at all.

Q: What replaces fear?

A: Most of life is lived in expectation. People from 18 years old on learn what to expect from the life course; what they learn should be accurate and, I think, hopeful. That doesn’t mean we want to diminish research for the causes and cures, but we may have decades before anything happens that will put Alzheimer’s disease into a category that is more like, say HIV/AIDS [which can be controlled for many years with medication]. [In the meantime,] I think we need to reduce ignorance and stigmatization of memory loss.

Q: Your mother had severe memory loss, and possibly Alzheimer’s, in her later years. Did you learn anything caring for her that you found particularly helpful?

A: I wrote a biography of her, that I gave to her caregivers. It highlighted her accomplishments in life, her interests, and her values. And I said, you can talk to her about all these things despite her memory loss. She loved to hear about her past life. She loved to talk about education, which was the love of her heart. She liked to be called upon for advice. Though her memory loss was great, her intelligence stayed for a long time.

Q: Your book takes a larger look at society’s view of aging, well beyond Alzheimer’s. What is the key point of your book?

A: I think my whole book is intended to move people from fear of aging to fear of ageism.

Q: What do you mean by ageism?

A: Mid-life people who have lost jobs — they are very anxious about not getting jobs. This is a national dilemma. There are various forces producing generational hostility. They have been saying [baby] boomers are not tech savvy. They have been saying younger people don’t like to have older people in the workforce. That’s just propaganda.

Q: You suggest people should be more skeptical about the stories we hear and tell ourselves about getting older being a bad thing.

A: Whenever you hear things that seem to weaken the sense of expectation about the life course, I think you have to start asking yourself, is this ageism, middle-ageism, is this decline narrative? Is this something we could oppose instead of just believing and acting upon?


This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karen

Margaret Morganroth Gullette
Gullette, a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, recently published “Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America.’’

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