Medical Self-Care: Dealing With Ageism

Read this interview with Dr. Alex Comfort, a distinguished geriatrician, who discusses age discrimination and how to deal with it.

| May/June 1982

Alex Comfort is one of the country's most distinguished geriatricians (a term, as many of you know, for a physician who specializes in the care of older people), and his book The Practice of Geriatric Psychiatry is a standard text in the field. Comfort, 61, received his medical training at England's Cambridge University. He first worked as a general practitioner, then studied pediatrics before becoming interested in gerontology (the study of the mechanisms of aging).
"When I came to America," he recalls, "I found that you had excellent gerontology but very little geriatrics, so I returned to clinical practice. At first I was a mouse doctor, a scientist trying to modify the life span, but now I'm more interested in aging as a cultural and social phenomenon, and in the more immediate problems that older people face. " 

An Interview on the Study of Ageism

FERGUSON: The central message of your fine book, A Good Age, seems to be that many of the so-called biological changes that occur as one grows older are, in fact, psychological, social and political.

COMFORT: Yes, the greater part of the aging process is culturally determined. Our folklore imposes a set of roles on people, as they reach a certain chronological age, which characterize them as unintelligent, unemployable, crazy, ineducable and incapable of sexual activity. Some social "credit points" can be gained by being nice to these sub-human individuals — again, according to the folklore — but most of them prefer the company of other aged unfortunates whose main occupations are grumbling, reminiscing, religion and attending the funerals of friends. In fact, however, older people as a group tend to be open-minded, bright, active, adaptable and sexually active.

FERGUSON: In other words, our society encourages prejudice against older people.

COMFORT: Yes, and the name of that prejudice is "ageism." It's the notion that after having lived a certain number of years, people either cease to be people or cease to be the same people or become somehow inferior. Like racism, which it resembles, ageism is based on a combination of fear and folklore . . . and thus needs to be contradicted by facts and, when necessary, confrontation. It's the older people — the victims of this prejudice — who must stand up for themselves in order to combat it. And to do this, they've got to become a bit more bloody-minded.

FERGUSON: Bloody-minded?

COMFORT: It's a British Army term. There's no exact American equivalent, but it implies feistiness, orneriness and heroic obstinacy in refusing to be put down — whether it be by doctors, bureaucrats, people on the street or your own children. Bloody-mindedness means standing up for your right to be yourself. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said, "Do not go gentle into that good night." Still less should a person go gentle into second-class citizenship, a rip-off nursing home, or a state of senior Uncle Tomism. Bloody-mindedness can be an index of self-respect, and those who are the most bloody-minded are often the most gentle and most principled because — while standing up for themselves — they also speak for others who are more timid. They have the capacity to write letters, telephone the media, and kick shins when assailed by the forces of a faceless society. And if their minds are bloody enough, they become all but invincible, and inevitably die with their boots on.

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