Ageism is real

Susan Donnelly, MSW, LCSW has been a practicing psychotherapist in Bergen County for over 30 years ( She has earned a reputation for empathy and a sense of humor, and explains that empathy is the ability to walk a bit in someone else's shoes so they might walk further or more easily: "It involves both an aptitude and a commitment. A sense of humor helps us learn wisdom."

Susan is former Chair of the Bergen County Mental Health Board and has held Clinical, Administrative, and Supervisory positions in public and private agencies. In addition to the leadership she has provided to numerous State, County and Regional councils and committees, Susan is a SHARE, INC. volunteer. She welcomes your questions.

In response to a resident's concern regarding "isms", Susan writes:

Ageism is real. There is an insidious and unfounded bias in our culture which claims that older people are inferior in a number of ways. These ways include physical appearance, mental sharpness, and health. It is falsely assumed that older people are self-absorbed and less interested than younger people in others and the outside world in general.

All these assumptions are false. Seniors can look their age and at the same time be strikingly good-looking. (Although we still lack a word for older women that corresponds to “distinguished” for older men!)  My favorite Aunt Gladys died at 97, still talking circles around anyone on any topic, and still being deeply empathic and insightful. And senior health issues don’t necessarily have to interfere with living a full life, especially for nonsmokers and those who exercise regularly. (Walking around the block counts.)

Alas there are other toxic “isms” that plague our society. There is sexism which claims that men are superior to women. Derogatory words for women are generally more shaming than corresponding words for men. It’s “history”, not “herstory”. This bias hurts all of us. It’s more and more apparent that religious and secular institutions that exclude women from leadership and full participation enable the worst forms of toxic masculinity.

A popular bias of late is directed at LGBT people. They are being scapegoated by being falsely, ridiculously, accused of being responsible for anything from divorce rates to sexual abuse scandals, to natural disasters. Scapegoating has tragically been done to Jews for time immemorial, also always based on lies and distortions. I happen to be straight. Even if I desperately wanted to be gay, I couldn’t make myself so. The same goes for gay people. They can’t make themselves straight, even though it’s so much easier to live as a straight person in this culture.  Throughout recorded history, gay people make up a tiny and consistent fraction of the human community. Honestly, aren’t there a lot more important things to worry about?

For our country, the most pervasive “ism” has always been racism. It has been said that we are the only nation that has been founded upon the genocide of one race (Native Americans) and the enslavement and torture of another (African Americans).  This is our original sin as a nation. As a white person in this country, I have found it is impossible to completely escape racist assumptions. Many of them are now underground, as we no longer spout racist language with impunity. Rev. William Sloane Coffin wrote “The best I can do is to live ‘in recovery’ from my racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.”.

Lastly, if we wish to follow Coffin’s example, we cannot approach freeing ourselves from biases as we would a buffet table.  It is inconsistent and hypocritical to claim equality for Seniors, or women, or a particular religion, but not for gay people or disabled people. If we believe there is such thing as the human family, or believe God didn’t create and love just certain people and not others, then we cannot pick and choose who warrants our respect and care.