Sadly, age discrimination is an age-old problem

Elise T. Chisolm

November 12, 1991|By Elise T. Chisolm

A 40-YEAR-old friend who is afraid of aging recently asked me if I've felt any discrimination now that I am over 65.

An interesting question and one that I'm asked frequently.

I told her if I'd felt anything, it's that sometimes I felt ignored or patronized.

When waiting in line at a checkout counter, ticket line or trying to get a taxi, I can feel somewhat invisible because I am no longer pretty, sexy or young-looking.

After all, one can't shed the blemishes and wrinkles of time. Like an aging house, the exterior changes shape and color, needs touching up, refurbishing -- the furrows of time are not kind. But behind the facade may be laughter, gladness and high energy -- a person who is really celebrating life.

And yes, I had bouts of loneliness in the workplace as I grew older. As the baby boomers worked their way to the top, and rightfully so, there is a feeling that you have to measure up.

But if the people you work with are professional, caring and pleasant, and if there is camaraderie, you do not feel discriminated against. There is room for women of all ages under the glass ceiling.

But old age in America is not as respected as in other cultures.

''Graying'' in America is not for sissies.

The commercial that Denny's restaurant runs, the one with the two elderly women talking, is discriminatory. One woman keeps getting the name wrong -- ''Lenny's,'' she keeps saying, depicting memory loss. This ad is highly odious to me.

A jet pilot friend of mine thinks it is wrong that he was retired at 60 because of the Federal Aviation Administration rules. His in-flight evaluation was excellent, and he is in top-rate health.

But hold onto your bifocals, there are some new statistics:

A few months ago a New York Times editorial opened with: ''American industry has long operated on the theory that the sooner aging workers are put out to pasture the better. Early retirement is considered not only human but smart. It makes room for new people with new ideas.''

The Times went on to say that a study published by the Commonwealth Fund found that older workers did fine on computers, rarely balked at assignments and stuck with the companies far longer than the younger workers. And that those over normal retirement age ''have less and less desire to ride into the sunset on a golf course.''

So the myths are disappearing. The concept of old age on the job may change with the new age.

With ''Matlock,'' ''Murder She Wrote'' and ''The Golden Girls,'' television is changing perceptions of aging.

WBAL talk show host Bruce Elliott was surprised recently when callers said they objected to ''The Golden Girls," that it presented a bad image of old age with the women's active sex lives and high-flying styles.

Bruce and I later discussed the reaction. ''A preponderance of callers liked 'Golden Girls','' he pointed out. The show depicts older woman as having a choice, and this is what it's all about.

''There's a great difference between respect for the elderly and mummification,'' he added. ''But apparently there are people who like the concept of an elderly person, a woman usually, baking cookies or sitting in a rocking chair knitting . . . It's wrong to think that people over 65 should not have an interest in sex.''

But I still hear stories of companies giving the older employees more work than their younger counterparts, so that they will want to retire. Putting people ''out to pasture'' is still prevalent. After all, senior workers earn fatter salaries.

Personally, I feel I have not written my ultimate story, and I hope I can do just that.

So in answer to my young friend's question -- yes, there is all sorts of discrimination in American society. And we need to address the problems and the negative stereotypes, not just take surveys.

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