Denial and Disrespect

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I was at a meeting the other evening and a grey-haired woman mentioned that people had tended not to notice her as she got older. She began to feel invisible. As she got greyer and greyer, she was more and more ignored. However, she decided to get a pair of snazzy eye-glasses and people started to pay attention.

I know what she means about being invisible. The same thing happened to me when I decided to stop coloring my hair about seven or eight years ago. Without hair color, I began to look like the unfortunate, widely accepted stereotypical image of a little old lady. Yes, I am small and I am older than I used to be. Also, I prefer to be called a “woman.” The Urban Dictionary defines “little old lady” as “…one who is seen as weak, and feeble, and/or feeble-minded.” The term feeble-minded, of course, is archaic and offensive, but the concept that it represents is real: older women with silvery hair are assumed not to have the ability to think and reason. Among many who see an older woman, the knee-jerk reaction is – here is someone who doesn’t have much of a brain. Interestingly, I couldn’t find a concise description of a “little old man.”

There was a brief discussion at the meeting about how to challenge these distressing, false assumptions about older people and how these notions reflect ageism. We talked for a while, but ended up mostly shaking our heads in frustration at not being able to come up with plausible, practical strategies to combat this prejudice. The arena of ageism is broad and ranges from becoming invisible all the way to discrimination in the work place. One woman, who had worked in demanding positions for most of her life, said that when she applies for a job now, she asks for very little money in order to lower concern that someone with her experience would be expensive to hire. Mainly she wants to be able to continue to use her extensive skills, provide good services to a worthy employer, and help people. So far, she hasn’t had a great deal of luck. So, where to begin?

As I thought about ways in which we could change attitudes about older people, I began to see a clear relationship between our tendency to deny our own aging and the perpetuation of ageism. If we continue to ignore the indisputable reality that we are constantly getting older, and work even harder to deny that certainty, then we are setting ourselves up for disrespect. If we can’t accept the normal, inevitable life process, then we are projecting the message that we don’t respect ourselves and our stage in life.

I feel strongly that we need to put our older selves out there and, rather than being ashamed of our senior-hood we must be proud of all the things we have accomplished over many years. We must show that grey-haired people do have knowledge, competencies – and brains. If we begin to show ourselves as the competent people we are, perhaps those who interact with us will start to notice and value our sagacity.

Here are a few first steps. First, speak up! People don’t know we have good, thoughtful things to say unless we express them. Say them among family and friends, say them in the super market, and say them at public meetings and hearings. To get important messages out we must show up and talk. In addition to verbal communication, we can write letters to editors, elected officials, and influential people expressing our opinions.

Second, if we are to speak our minds, it is really important to have a clear position based on reliable information. Although “fake news” seems to be pretty popular, I don’t recommend making something up and presenting that as the truth. I am truly concerned that falsification of real situations and issues has become acceptable and believable in public discourse. It is often easier to lie than to ferret out reality, but we have to put in the effort to know what we are talking about.

Third, it is good do to do this communicating as an individual, but it can be more impactful if we do it as a small group. So, if there is something to be said, try to find a few other people who think the way you do, and speak up together.

Finally, and most importantly, think about not buying into the denial of aging culture. It will only hurt us. We shouldn’t deny our aging by pretending we are much younger. Maybe we should consider not coloring our hair or modifying our bodies to make us believe we will look forever young.

If we do these things, perhaps others will begin to see us, hear us and value us as we are – as smart and competent as those who are younger. And – try a new pair of sophisticated, up-to-date glasses that express confidence, self-worth and bold pride.


  1. Carolyn Kruger

    February 2, 2017

    Thank you so much for such a well stated reminder about expressing our opinions, white/silver hair and al!!!
    Carolyn K.

  2. Twyla Dell

    February 3, 2017

    This must be why I’m still coloring my hair, what little there is left of it! Good article as always. To your point I am giving a Sunday morning program on the book we published in honor of Hilary’s run for president. Five of my friends will also be presenting, one at 85 years of age. We’re out there doing’ it! Also marched in the Washington, D.C. march as you know. My family bragged about their 78-year-old mom and nana marching. I thought it was necessary and important and had less to do with age than with continuing to support a supporting

  3. Paula Gilbert

    February 6, 2017

    Hear, hear, Marian. This piece and these
    observations are so on the mark and are so close
    to home!

    • Marian Knapp

      February 8, 2017

      Thanks! I have been observing this issue for a very long time. It is time to step up and face it.

  4. Sharon katz

    February 9, 2017

    I’m 48 and stopped coloring my hair a few years ago- and I get a LOT of unsolicited comments- some in disbelief, but many from woman my age saying they “wish” they could do it… I encourage them to save the money and time and avoid the chemicals, but moreso to embrace their natural beauty. I like the way I look and I’m glad to be a role model for my children/students to show them how women really look as they age.

    • Marian Knapp

      February 9, 2017

      Sharon, You are ahead of your time and our culture. That’s wonderful! Marian

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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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