About a decade ago, at age 62, I had a rude awakening. While sitting in a restaurant, I caught myself staring at an old, frail-looking woman at a nearby table. Her clothes were raggedy and worn out. Her hands were dirty. As I watched her order free samples, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. “Why is she here at my favorite vegan restaurant,” I thought. “It’s so sad — those wrinkles, that frailty, the poverty and neediness. I’ll never be like that.” 

It took me a little while to realize it, but at that moment I was meeting a hidden, unknown part of myself — a part that attributed to her what I was denying and rejecting in myself: my own loss of youthful vitality and a fear of looming potential dependency, loneliness and poverty. I was projecting onto her a dark image of my future and deeply disliking what I felt.

I was shocked by this new awareness, especially because I had worked and rallied against the other “isms” and stereotypes of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia. Yet deep in the hidden recesses of my unconscious, ageism — invisible and insidious — persisted.

At that moment I became aware of my own “inner ageist.” I dubbed her “the bag lady.” She personifies my fear of losing everything — of being unable to take care of myself someday and being scorned by the rest of the world for being old or dependent or slow. My “bag lady” led me on an unanticipated journey.

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With ageism, we project our negative fantasies of “old” — ugly, frail, needy, senile — which leads to condescension and stereotyping: greedy geezer, old bat, over the hill, out to pasture. And when millions of young people project what they fear about aging onto elders, the latter try to appear and act younger. Hence the epidemic of anti-aging marketing, advertising, surgery and hormone replacement therapy.

People who had positive beliefs about growing older, as measured 23 years earlier, gained 7.5 years of life — more than the longevity gained from low blood pressure, low cholesterol, healthy weight, cessation of smoking and regular exercise.

I didn’t know it at the time, but “the bag lady” is an epidemic image within women in our culture. A survey from Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America found that women across all income levels said they sometimes fear losing their money and becoming homeless.

My journey led me to Becca Levy, a psychologist at Yale School of Public Health, who has spent her career pioneering research about the unconscious processes of age stereotypes and prejudice. She has revealed how positive and negative beliefs about older people — which she calls age stereotypes — can be embodied inside of us, having profound effects on our mental and physical health, as well as the journey we have ahead as we continue aging.

But how did aging even become “bad” to begin with? According to Levy, age stereotypes are internalized during childhood and young adulthood and are embodied when they lead to self-images. Those stereotypes are later reinforced throughout life by repeated exposure to ageist messaging. Eventually, over the years, they become “self-stereotypes” — the exact idea that I began to call “the inner ageist” after that day in the vegan cafe.

Outside of my own personal experience, I have seen how this process of internalization leads to self-hate and a merciless inner critic (“I’ve become weak, useless, worthless”) while working with elders as a therapist. If we assign meaning and value only to our appearance, accomplishments, physical strength or productive roles — and at some point these become diminished — then the inner ageist can be relentless.

Levy’s findings are startling and confirm that ageism, operating beneath conscious awareness, has ripple effects throughout our bodies and minds. During studies, participants exposed to negative stereotypes (“senile”) performed worse on memory tasks than those exposed to positive ones (“wise”). Older adults exposed to negative stereotypes showed higher heart reactivity, indicating physiological stress — although the participants were unaware of this impact. People who had positive beliefs about growing older, as measured up to 23 years earlier, gained 7.5 years of life — more than the longevity gained from low blood pressure, low cholesterol, healthy weight, cessation of smoking and regular exercise. People with early negative beliefs about aging showed a greater loss in their brain’s memory site and more growth of tangles and plaques, two indicators of Alzheimer’s disease. Those who held positive images about physical health during retirement lived 4.5 years longer than others. And those who held positive images of mental health during retirement lived 2.5 years longer.

Levy’s research made me realize that I had another book to write meeting our own inner ageists, taking a closer look at why we feel so negative about getting older and — most importantly — shifting our own perceptions and experiences with aging. If the unconscious beliefs and biases we have about aging are indeed shaping every aspect of our physical and mental health, then we need tools and practices to bring awareness to them and break free of them. After interviewing hundreds of people who are ages 55 and above, I discovered the inner obstacles that stop us from aging consciously and how to break free of them. When we do inner work, it leads to the elder stage.

As a long-term meditator, I knew that many traditions teach that this stage of life is about spiritual practice. If ageist stereotypes and biases are blocking peoples’ emotional development, then they are probably blocking spiritual development as well. Many older adults are missing the real promise of late-life — the spiritual shift in identity from role to soul.

The phrase “role to soul” was coined by spiritual teacher Ram Dass to refer to an inner shift in identity from our doing, achievement and self-image to our essential spiritual nature, whether we call it soul, spirit or self. As the roles we previously held — CEO, mom, writer, provider — fall away with age or illness or loss or retirement, we’re thrown back on the essential spiritual question: Who am I? When we experience this late-life identity crisis, spiritual practices from all the traditions allow us to remember who we are and to become even more deeply established in a spiritual identity that is independent of what we do or how we look or what we achieve or what other people think of us. This shift is the gift of our extended longevity, the promise that is hiding in plain sight. 

Becoming an elder is a stage, not an age. An elder has deep familiarity with spiritual depth or inner silence. An elder is aware of his or her own issues. An elder is open, rather than judgmental, and has compassion for the suffering of others. An elder wants to give their unique gifts to the world. An elder trusts that something larger is carrying them.

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Now is the time, as thousands of us turn 65 every day, for a shift in how we think about aging, how we age and our opportunities to become elders for our communities. I believe that the world needs elder wisdom right now. There are many fighting for age equality — trying to counter negative media portrayals and to create positive social policies. But Levy’s research shows that activism is not enough: We need to uncover the inner ageist in each of us and root it out so that we don’t continue to perpetuate the cultural ageism that has plagued us for so long.

If we can do that, then maybe we can slow down enough to self-reflect, meditate and find the treasures of late-life: a new rhythm, reclaimed creativity, opportunities to serve something larger than ourselves and advanced stages of spiritual development — a chance to find what life is really all about.

Connie Zweig, Ph.D., recently retired after working as a therapist in Los Angeles for 30 years. This essay is adapted from her latest book, “The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul.” Zweig is also co-author of “Meeting the Shadow” and “Romancing the Shadow.”

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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