Coming to Terms with Invisibility and Ageism

Contemplative mature woman looking through the view at home

Our culture worships youth and beauty. People who embody these ideals receive a lot of focus and attention. But sooner or later, we tend to reach an age where we stop resembling our culture’s narrow ideas of what beauty is supposed to look like.

And then, almost overnight, we no longer seem to get noticed at all. Suddenly, it’s as though we’re not even there.

Turning Invisible

It’s a very common experience for those of us who are over 50: Folks push past us in line, don’t listen to us, and don’t treat us as if we matter.

Feeling invisible because of one’s age happens to people of all genders. But it seems to affect women the most. According to a 2016 survey:

70 percent of respondents said that women become “invisible” as they get older, whereas only 32 percent of men do.
Women generally start “disappearing” when they’re in their 50s. On average, men don’t start having the same experience until the age of 64.

And that makes sense. In our culture, men tend to be valued more for what they do, whereas women tend to be valued more for how they look.

So, it’s like we abruptly lose one of our biggest social assets. We stop being treated as if we’re special and desirable, and we fade into the background — having been replaced in the public eye by people younger than ourselves.

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Turning invisible does have one enormous silver lining for women, though. It can feel very liberating when you are no longer ranked based on your appearance or desirability, expected to dress a certain way, or told to smile. That’s no small thing.

Experiencing Ageism

Getting less attention is only one of the things we have to worry about as we get older. We also need to watch out for a type of discrimination called ageism — a type of prejudice that is still very socially acceptable today.

Here are some examples of ageism, from a 2019 National Poll on Healthy Aging:

61% of adults between the ages of 50 and 80 reported being exposed to jokes about old age, aging, or older people.
38% had heard, seen, or read things suggesting that older adults are unattractive or undesirable.
45% said people had made certain assumptions about them because of their age. For instance, people assume that older people probably aren’t competent to use cell phones and computers, can’t see or hear properly, or have trouble remembering or understanding things.
82% regularly experienced at least one form of ageism in their day-to-day lives.

According to the same study, it was more common to experience three or more forms of everyday ageism among:

People aged 65 – 80 vs. 50 – 64
Women vs. men
People with annual household incomes below $60,000 vs. those with higher incomes
Retirees living in rural areas vs. cities or suburbs

And when ageism intersects with other forms of discrimination such as racism and sexism, it puts people at an even greater disadvantage, socially and economically.

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Ageism and Health Care Quality

Tragically, ageism can also affect the quality of care that older people receive.

Health care professionals sometimes assume that an older patient’s symptoms are being caused by their age, rather than by some specific health problem. For instance, if someone is getting forgetful and confused, a doctor may jump to the conclusion that dementia is the cause, when it could be something else. Or if someone has a fall, a doctor might assume it’s just because they’re “elderly” rather than looking at what underlying risk factors caused them to fall.

Health care providers may also dismiss pain, anxiety, and depression as an unavoidable result of getting older, which isn’t true. Or they may unconsciously consider older people less deserving of treatment than their younger counterparts.

And older adults are also less likely to be included in clinical trials. That’s a real loss to the research world! What if a particular treatment is less safe or effective in people over 50…but the researchers don’t notice this difference, because there aren’t enough folks that age in the treatment’s clinical trial population?

Being Seen and Respected, by Ourselves and Each Other

If you’ve reached “a certain age,” and you’re no longer getting the attention and respect that you used to, don’t let it lower your self-esteem.

If you yourself believe that you’ve become less relevant and important with age, it can negatively affect your emotional, mental, and physical health. Don’t sell yourself short that way!

You are still as important and socially relevant as ever — just in a different way. And your knowledge, experiences, and life strategies can be very valuable to the people around you. After all, we do tend to get wiser with age.

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We may not participate in the latest trends. But, unlike many younger people, we have the perspective to recognize how trivial and temporary those trends usually are.

And there’s strength in numbers. Today, a larger percentage of the U.S. population is over the age of 65 than ever before. Together, we can stand up against ageism!