Unpacking Ageism

with Dr. Tracey Gendron,

Author, Chair for the Department of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University

This week on the Art of Aging, host Rev. Beth Long-Higgins chats with Dr. Tracey Gendron, author and Chair for the Department of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University. During the episode, Beth and Tracey talk about ageism and the ways it exists in everyday life. The conversation also includes discussion around successful aging, the theory of gerotranscendence, how aging intersects with all aspects of our overall identity, and more.
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Highlights from this week’s conversation include:

  • Defining Ageism (1:27)
  • The ways ageism exists (4:11)
  • Successful aging, abundant aging, and the theory of (8:41)
  • The theory of GeoTranscendence (15:23)
  • Reaching our full potential as we age (16:52)
  • Understanding internal struggles with ageism and how we can age abundantly (20:30)
  • How aging intersects with our overall identity (24:29)
  • Ageism Awareness Day (27:06)
  • Connecting with Dr. Gendron (32:48)


Abundant Aging is a podcast series presented by United Church Homes. These shows offer ideas, information, and inspiration on how to improve our lives as we grow older. To learn more and to subscribe to the show, visit abundantagingpodcast.com


Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 00:08
Hello and welcome to The Art of Aging part of the Abundant Aging Podcast Series from United Church Homes. On this show, we look at what it means to age in America and other places around the world with positive and empowering conversations that challenge, encourage and inspire all to grow with abundance. Our guest today I’m so excited is Dr. Tracy Gendron, who is chair for the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of gerontology. She’s also the Director for the Virginia Center on Aging and is the author of the book ageism, unmask books, flooring age bias and how to end it. With over 25 years of experience as a grant funded researcher and nationally recognized speaker, Tracy is dedicated to raising awareness and ending ageism through education. Her personal and professional goal is to raise awareness of elderhood as the solution to the deeply embedded ageism, pervasive within all cultures, settings and within us as individuals. So we should mention that Dr. Gendron is going to be our keynote speaker at our annual Ruth Frost Parker symposium and Tober this year and you can register for it to attend either live in Columbus, Ohio or online by visiting United Church homes all one word.org. Welcome, Tracy. So let’s get into it. Because I know that I’ve already said the word ageism several times. And it’s one of the foundational concepts that whenever we talk about Asia, we need to define it. So would you please define what ageism is,

Dr. Tracey Gendron 01:54
I would love to but first I will say thank you so much for having me on the podcast. And I’m so excited to visit you all in person and to share some space with you to have these great conversations. So ageism is so much more than people first think it is. I think what a lot of people think of ageism, the first thing that comes to mind for them is discrimination in the workplace. And that is a part of ageism for sure. We definitely see that it’s harder for older people specifically to get hired to get promoted to find new jobs. So that is a piece of it. But it just scratches the surface of what ageism really is. Ageism is generally discrimination based on age. So it’s anytime we make an assumption, a judgment, a stereotype about someone based on their age, meaning it can be towards people of any age perceived as younger or older. So if we’re kind of walking into a situation, and we’re assuming something about someone, they’re too young or too old, whatever it may be, that’s external ageism. So that’s how we feel towards others. Ageism is also internally driven. So it’s about how we feel about ourselves and our own aging. And that’s actually quite powerful, because it’s something that stays with us our entire lives. So it’s externally driven, it’s internally driven. And then it’s relational. Meaning that it kind of lives within our relationships, within the things that we say to each other, which often are disguised as compliments. You know, Beth, I haven’t seen you in 20 years, you look great for your age, or you haven’t aged a bit. That’s kind of relationally driven, where it’s like, we express it, and then what do we do we say, Thank you, that’s such a compliment. And then we internalize it. So it kind of creates this vicious cycle. So you can see it’s really nuanced. And it’s really complex. Yeah.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 03:50
And, you know, I love that in the title of your book, you talk about unmasked, ageism, unmasked and, and I, and I have this image of kind of pulling off layers, as I kind of get into ageism, and learn more about it. And it is because there are so many layers, because I have been through so many cycles, we’ve all been through so many of those loops, where it’s been reinforced. And then there are new messages, and those go and reinforce the old messages. Yeah. So yeah, and I know that, you know, there are people who laugh at me here at work and within my family, because I’m kind of always saying, hey, wait a minute. We see it everywhere. And you already talked about internal, external and relational. What are some of the other kinds of ageism that exist?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 04:44
So, you know, it’s funny that you say, you know, people will laugh at you and I think there is this danger of coming across as like, you know, policing language or the ageism police. And one of the first messages I want to get across to people is that this is not necessarily about the language itself, that’s a piece of it. This is not about being politically correct in any way, shape or form. This is because, you know, it matters for our own health and our own happiness and our own longevity. So it’s just I kind of address that upfront, because this is so much more than that. So you know, different forms of it, it takes place within institutions, it’s in our policies and procedures, it happens within families, as you were saying, where we may limit the things or the autonomy or the opportunities that older people have to make their own choices. It plays out in all different kinds of settings, from, you know, work settings, to personal settings to micro aggressions, again, going back to those compliments, so it kind of lives everywhere, even within the larger culture, these large cultural messages that we have, like, for example, the anti aging industry, the fact that we have a thriving multibillion dollar industry that exists off of shaming people for looking acting or feeling old. So lots of manifestations of it in all different forms and places. Yeah,

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 06:16
I was having a conversation with a friend just a couple of days ago. And she was talking about her father, who has moved four times in the last six months since her mother died. And he has decided to move back to the town where he lived, and doesn’t have a whole lot of support there. But that’s what feels comfortable. Yeah. And, and she realizes, okay, it’s his decision to make, and it’s the wrong decision. And, you know, I, we, I think many of us have been in that situation, just like when our kids make decisions that might agree with our parents are going to make decisions that we don’t agree with, what they are adults, and they have been making their own decisions for 7080 90 years, and we can express an opinion. But that’s all we can do. It’s their choice to make

Dr. Tracey Gendron 07:06
wealth and do your partner’s your friends make decisions that you don’t agree with? It’s no different than that, where you’re like, Well, I see this differently. But this is an adult who skates well and makes their own choices. Yeah, I see that.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 07:22
And I was wondering, okay, how is she viewing? How is she viewing her father at this point? Is there an assumption that because of some of the declines that he’s experiencing, physically, and maybe mentally, then that, that that’s equating in her mind that? Okay, this isn’t a person who’s capable of making such big life decisions? And,

Dr. Tracey Gendron 07:44
yeah, yeah. And she’s probably driven by a need for protection and safety. You know, and in so many ways, I think we’re also conditioned to think of it that way, when you even think about most of the products and services that are geared towards older people, it’s around safety, security and surveillance. And it comes from a place of love, where we very much want to keep our loved one safe, you know, don’t don’t do that you might fall, don’t go out into the garden, you might overheat, you know, whatever it may be. And we don’t realize that by doing that, we may be limiting autonomy and opportunities for people to make their own choices. But it’s complicated, because it does come from a good place.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 08:26
You know, after 25 years of working with family systems as local church pastors, almost always the adult children are worried about safety. And then the older adults are worried about agency and autonomy and being able to continue to have a voice that is a part of who they are. Yeah, yeah, exactly. Let’s take it in your book, you talk about successful aging. And you define that pretty well. And on the one hand, successful aging seems like what that would be the answer to ageism. But you made some comments that helped me to realize why actually, just to talk about successful aging is dangerous. And I have to say that when people hear me talk about abundant aging, they think I’m talking about successful aging, and I’m not and so tell us a little bit of a successful aging.

Dr. Tracey Gendron 09:23
Let’s do that. And then I want you to define abundant aging, because I think that’s such a great term. And I would love to wrap my head around how you see the definition of that. So just a little background that I think is relevant, successful aging came out of the discipline of gerontology. And it was actually in response to ageism, which is really interesting to me. So 1980s 1990s You know, researchers were saying, Well, how can we kind of shift the perspective of people that not all older people are frail or incapacitated. We want you to kind of make this view that there’s a wide variety of older people, and many are thriving and living independently. So they came up with this concept of successful aging, which has done some good things because it has enabled more research to focus on prevention, to focus on longevity. So that’s the good side of successful aging. But when you look at the definition, successful aging is defined as essentially maintaining independence and engagement in activities having cognitive function and having physical function. So that’s great. I mean, that’s wonderful. However, when you define something as success, it means that a polarity is created. And that means that there’s people that fall into failure. Well, what is failure at aging? I mean, if aging is the bio, psychosocial spiritual process of living and changing over time, then no matter what physical or cognitive state or level of engagement we have, we’re all succeeding. So it creates this really limited view of success in which eventually we’ll all fail, because we are mortal, because our bodies will change that’s part of aging. And I think that that led us from this slope from ageism to ableism, where ageism is discrimination based on age ableism, is discrimination based on ability. When the truth is, we get to define our own path to success. And I think that definition gets to continuously change over time. You know, I’m not going to define success for myself at 20, the same way I am today at 52, the same way I will years from now at 80. The definition of success in my life is going to change drastically. That’s a good thing. We evolve, we develop, we change. So I just think that we’ve created this trap, this trap of successful aging, that keeps people thinking that they have to maintain a certain version of themselves, instead of letting themselves evolve into something else. Yeah, I

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 12:06
kind of like that. And actually, I’ve, in my mind, I’m kind of adding that question at this age, at this point in your life, what is success? What is successful living? And, you know, we talked about that, what is your purpose at this whatever point in life you’re at? You know, and that’s been a challenge. Well, success is another concept. It’s not the same as purpose. But I’m adding that to my list of concepts to be exploring when we do workshops, in conversations at all. Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Dr. Tracey Gendron 12:42
So the abundance aging, tell me about that?

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 12:45
Yeah, our board of directors when they were working on vision, mission values statement in 2014. It was a faith inspired organization, and many of the members of the board have to be members of the United Church of Christ. And one of one of the board members who was there kind of connected with, from the book of John, in the Christian scriptures, Jesus is saying is having a prayer and Jesus says, I come that you may have life and have it abundantly. And, you know, aging is to have life to be living, we are aging, whether or not we call it aging, when, when we’re infants and toddlers, or when we’re teenagers, but it’s aging, and, and so, however our life journey takes us that that’s a part of, of, of living and and I loved your definition of psychosocial, you added spiritual dimension there. And in so abundance, kind of as a nod to the fact that we also know here in the 21st century, we’ve added a significant period of time to longevity to the lifespan. So we have more, more years of life that we have to navigate and figure out what they mean. And we also know that through the advances, particularly in the medical sciences, you know, thanks to vaccines and antibiotics and the fact that we have fewer infant mortality, deaths and whatnot, that we also are healthier. We saw not only do we live longer, but our health span is generally longer. Even if we have comorbidities, even if we have diagnoses, we are able to live successfully. We are able to engage in the world without too much interruption for longer periods of time. And, and that has to do with abundance. And that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a decline. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges But that doesn’t mean that everybody is the same. And it also means for us a recognition specifically about that spiritual dimension of life. And that changes and their anecdotal and some research evidence shows that there is a deepening of the spiritual understanding and connections as we age. And so all of that is kind of included, included in what we refer to as abundant aging. So,

Dr. Tracey Gendron 15:32
I love that. Are you familiar with the theory of gerotranscendence?

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 15:37

Dr. Tracey Gendron 15:39
It makes me think of that. So for listeners that aren’t familiar with it, gerotranscendence is this beautiful theory that says that for many of us, as we get older, it’s developmentally appropriate for us to kind of turn inward, for us to be less concerned with the outside world with material things and to really focus instead on our own cosmic transitions and spiritual transitions. And so sometimes I wonder, you know, we’re so focused on keeping people engaged. And actually we live in an extroverted world, right? Where introverts tend to, you know, want to kind of back off a little bit and say, I’m actually quite happy by myself. And I wonder if for some older people, that’s true as well, that there’s actually a real normal developmental imperative to say, I’m good, quieting down. I am good, really doing the inner work. So I love that. Yeah. And

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 16:34
It has to do with that inner journey. And I forget, Lars turn, what’s torn, torn some. It also reminds me of the work of Richard Rohr, a contemporary Catholic priest, who his understanding of spiritual life and as we age is, is, I think, very compatible to turn stances. So that leads us to another concept, which I think just fits into the conversation really well here that you’ve mentioned that you learned about from Botswana, and I’m not going to try to pronounce I’m going to let you do that. Tell us.

Dr. Tracey Gendron 17:13
Yeah. And I have no idea if I’m saying it correctly. But there’s this Botswana concept that one of my colleagues introduced to me that she found in the literature called botsofe. And what I love about it is it connects so beautifully, because it’s basically saying what if we thought about the physical changes in the body and the decline that we experience as a necessary way to reach our emotional and spiritual potential? You know, what if we had to slow down in order to have the quiet time, the introspection to be able to grow in that way? And I never thought of it as a really purposeful kind of pairing of why we have growth and decline at the same time. And I just love that idea. Because it just feels, I don’t know, like there’s a path forward. That means something for me that if I’m slowing down, maybe there’s reasons why my body is slowing down and an opportunity for me to look at life a little bit differently.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 18:18
Absolutely. This reminds me I think we had shared this in the conversation earlier of Claude Monet, and the painter and when he was 59, it was the first time he painted one of his gardens and cavern. And he would go and visit there in the summers for about the first six or seven years. In all total, he painted 259 paintings of that garden, but between the ages of 59 and whenever he died in his mid to early to mid 80s. But somewhere in his mid 60s, he had the ability to help someone helped him, purchase Aaron and from that point on, not only was he painting the garden, but he was working with the gardener, preparing where to plant things and what colors to plant. So that the next season, he could paint that so he was always looking forward to the next season. And he was doing all this in his 60s when his eyesight was failing and he was nearsighted and that was becoming even more so. And here he is outside painting a garden which you know, is far away. And his decline. His physical decline of his nearsightedness has resulted in the work of these paintings that most of us have seen. At least one we have some concept of when the garden of the cavern was at one during one season of the painting when he did whichever one we remember. And he influenced a whole school of painting. And that only happened because it was a Because of this decline in his aging process, and I just love that example of an individual who was facing his own mortality. And, and, and the eyesight piece, unlike if I were painting, it definitely would be impressionistic, without my glasses and would have been since the age of 10. So it’s not so much about aging for me. But she continued to press on. And he continued to have vision for what was coming. And he continued to work for that. So yeah, I love this. I love this concept of, but Sophie Yeah, yeah. So what do we need to do? To be aware of what, at least what’s happening internally within us? About ageism? And how is that preventing us from living abundantly?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 20:53
Yeah, I think there’s so many things that we can do. And I think the beautiful part is, I truly believe it starts with self. So this is really the first step in starting to think of some really basic questions like, do you connect with the fact that you are aging? Do you identify as somebody that is aging? And when you think about it, that’s actually a deeper question than one would first think. Because when we talk about the aging population, we tend to mean older people. When you know, the truth is aging is the one universal thing that actually connects us all. Really, the only universal thing that connects us all, we are all aging every moment of our lives. So do you connect with that? Do you think of yourself? Like, yes, I am on my journey of aging, no matter what age I am. And I think that’s the place to start. And then you know, once you kind of have a sense of how you think about it, then you can start to say, Well, how do I talk about it? What kind of words do I use? When I talk about growing older? Is that something that’s really proactive and positive? Or is it because I am getting older? Do I fear getting older? What are the fears that are underneath it? And then I think it’s about recognizing why that matters, because that’s another piece that we don’t really talk about. Again, this is more than just the language of, you know, being correct, and being, you know, inclusive and creating equity, that is a piece of it. But really behind all of that is that how we feel about our own aging matters to our health, matters to our happiness and matters to our longevity. And that’s knowledge that we have had Beth, you and I have known this for many, many decades, many years have been around for 20 years, this research and knowledge, but it hasn’t quite crossed over into mainstream consciousness. But for real, how you feel about yourself as an aging person impacts how long you live, impacts how well you live, there was even research by the wonderful Becca leaving, who has been like a pioneer in this health and ageism research that just came out recently that showed that people with mild cognitive impairment, who then changed some of their attitudes about aging to more positive, reversed some of the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, that’s really powerful. So these self limiting beliefs are really holding us back in so many ways. And if we start to then really dig down into Wow, okay, I really do fear getting older and then dig down into why. What is it about getting older that I fear? Is it a decline in disability? Is it that I feel like my relationships won’t be the same, that I fear loss, that I fear that people don’t value me, then we can start to do the mental work that we need to do. To say I can reframe this a little bit, I can start to think about aging a little bit differently. And one of the things that I will, a tool that I will give to people to get them started is you know, think about a version of you from five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and think of something you like about yourself better now than you did then. And then recognize that as part of your aging. So even if your body works differently, you know, you have different aches, pains, conditions, whatever it is there are things about your aging that you’re appreciative of. And that’s one way to start.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 24:37
Yeah. And I’m also struck that even though aging is the one thing that does connect every human being that our understanding of our own aging and how we’ve internalized ageism intersects with all the other aspects of of who we are to us intersection ally Crenshaw is unisex, intersectionality concept so that I can’t think about my aging apart from the fact that I’m female, that I’m that I’m cisgender female, and, you know, persons of color, their their experience of aging is going to happen. Having built upon their experience of also living and participating in the world as a person of color and how does aging affect those other isms?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 25:31
Yeah, that’s such a great point, aging, you know, all of the identities that we bring with us throughout our entire life are going to impact the opportunities that are afforded to us and the barriers that we face. So aging, you know, is really kind of about these different pieces of us that we bring our aging outcomes are really tied to that social determinants of health. So do we have access to health care and education. And so many of those are driven by cumulative disadvantage by people that are in marginalized identities, who don’t have equal opportunity for things. So it is not surprising that you’re going to see a difference in longevity, you’re gonna see a difference in, you know, certain diagnoses for people that are underrepresented minorities. And then ageism is like, it’s like a stack on. So if you have experienced sexism and racism, and homophobia and other you know, parts throughout your entire life based on your identity, then as you become older, ageism becomes one more, one more thing that you are facing one more level of discrimination. So I think it plays out in so many ways. One of the other things I think that’s important to realize is everybody ages differently. So no matter what identities you bring, your path is going to be very unique to you. Because you are an individual and your experiences are individual. So you know, I think all of that talk of intersectionality. It’s so important when it comes to how we age, and really important to them thinking through my goals for my own aging. So I’m really glad you brought that up.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 27:14
Yeah. So I just want to lift up your book again. She did not pay me to do this. But it’s been a year since that’s been published. And Tracy, I just saw that you’re talking about your own experience in your own family and your observations and all that. It’s a very accessible book. So I just want to point that out. I also want to be clear here that Tracy and I have gotten to know each other through the American society on aging. And since I’m the host, I get to ask you the question here. One of the things that the ageism and culture Advisory Council is doing through AASA is helping to promote an ageism Awareness Day. And do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 27:57
Yeah, so this is going to be the second ageism Awareness Day it started in 2022. So 2023 And is it October 7? Yep, yes. 11th. I can’t remember whether the seventh or eighth is Ageism Awareness Day. And this is something that Beth and I worked on, along with some other really great people from the American Society on Aging’s Advisory Council. And it is really meant to lift up and raise awareness of all forms of ageism, of how pervasive it is. And when we launched it last year, we were absolutely thrilled with the response on social media that we got with people posting and hash tagging and sharing kind of their own experiences and stories and why it mattered. And we’re gonna do that same thing again this year, and I encourage everybody to participate. And everybody, you know, take a moment to recognize that ageism exists, that it holds people back from their full potential in life. And that it’s something that really matters to all of us. So great timing that the symposium is going to be right around ageism Awareness Day and couldn’t be better. It’s the

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 29:09
the day before. Yeah, so if you would like to dive into this, October 6 is the day for the symposium and Tracy will be here along with several others. And we’re going to try to scratch the surface. I’m not going to say we’re going to address each, we’re going to scratch the surface but do so in a way that helps us all have some tools to be better aware of how it is around us and how it is within us. And some some beginning steps of what we can do at whatever point in life we are to help overcome ageism. Because we can overcome ageism, and we can make changes in the world. The committee’s changes in our own lives and it really does affect our mental health or physical health or spiritual health or longevity, or ability to live with pain, chronic pain, as you said, forms of dementia. And I think what did you mention in your book about how, when we became aware of the health hazards of smoking, we, you know, did a pretty significant shift in this culture about understanding about smoking. And so that’s what we’re doing with ageism. But the problem is, ageism isn’t a habit that we voluntarily pick up and begin ourselves. It has been, we’ve been absorbing it since the day we were born. And so in some ways, it’s more insidious, and it’s more difficult to see. So, one thing that we’d like to do when we come to the end of our podcast is ask our guests three questions about your perceptions of aging. So my, are you ready for your three? I am ready. Okay. Question number one, when you think about how you have aged, what do you think has changed about you or grown with you, that you really like about yourself?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 31:04
Oh, there’s so many things, actually. So one of the things I would say off the top that I am the most proud of is learning to be more comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s been a really hard one. I think anybody that has any kind of depression or anxiety, or you know, just feels a sense of generalized discomfort, understands that feeling and how hard it is to sit with that. And that took many, many, many years of practice, to recognize that I can be uncomfortable, and I can be okay. And I would never want to go back in time and have to learn that lesson again. So very grateful that it has been part of my aging and that I feel so much more me and equipped now at this stage of my life.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 31:57
Thanks. I love that answer. Yeah, I never try to hide my age and say, Yeah, I’m 29. I don’t want to be 29. Again, I don’t want to do it again. I see. And I That’s good. It’s good. Yeah. Okay, next question. What has surprised you most about what you’ve aged?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 32:15
I think how much happier I continue to become. I don’t think I expected that. You know, I think that life can be really challenging. And younger years can be really challenging when you’re finding yourself. And you’re figuring out what my values are? Who am I compared to my parents and my friends and my loved ones? And that work for me has been really worth it. Because I feel truer to me, I feel more like just authentic to who I am. And I think I carry that in the world like, This is who I am. And you know what? I’m okay with that. So that’s really surprising in a great way.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 32:55
Great. Great, I love it. Do you want to share with our listeners, how they can find you or find your work?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 33:03
Absolutely. So you can look me up in a variety of different ways. But check out my website, it is Tracey gendron.com. You can find the book there and you can find other information about me. There’s several videos if you go onto YouTube, or Google where I’m having great conversations like this. And you can always look me up on the VCU Virginia Commonwealth University website as well.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 33:28
Thank you very much, Tracy. And thank you to our listeners for listening to this episode of The Art of aging, or the abundant aging podcast for United Church homes. And we want to hear from you. What’s changed about you as you’ve aged that you love. What has surprised you the most? Join us and abundant aging podcast.com to share your ideas. You can also give us feedback when you visit the Ruth Frost Parker Center website at unitedchurchhomesorg/Parker-Center. Thank you so much, Tracy and I look forward to further conversations with you. Thanks. Bye bye.