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Overcoming Ageism Through Education and Awareness

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Denise King-Miller transformed her body at age 69 and started the “Seventy Forever” community for women to master mental, spiritual and physical well being.

One of the most pernicious types of prejudice is ageism, and it takes many different forms - at work, within families and in public settings.

“I’ve often heard the phrase, ‘Over the hill' said as a joke,” remarked Opal Elliott, a 75-year-old Falls Church resident and AARP volunteer, “but there’s many more positive ways to refer to older adults.”

“The Social Security Administration labels us by our retirement status,” she said. “But I have found that my later years in life have been more rewarding and enriching. Older adults have such depth and wisdom that is so valuable for all generations to learn from.”

Retirement from a job doesn’t equate to retirement from life. “We aren’t sitting around watching TV every day waiting to die. That is just such a misconception,” quipped Elliott, who is as active in her 70’s as when she was younger.

After “retirement,” Elliott worked as a volunteer in the Obama Administration receiving emails and phone calls from constituents and also at the Kennedy Center. But it was an AARP program that really touched her heart the most -- the Friendly Voice call program.

Each week AARP volunteers call and check in on older adults. “One time a caller told me, ‘This is the only call I get each week. I so look forward to it.’ ”

Elliott was moved to become certified and teach a “Disrupt Aging” class to pointedly stop ageism. What she stresses in her classes is, “Regardless of age, each of us are here to serve. When we do, the benefits come back to us in abundance.”

Misconceptions around aging

Early in life many children are exposed to various forms of prejudice which they subconsciously ingrain and then repeat in adulthood, said Dr. Tracey Gendron, chair and professor in the Department of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University and executive director of the Virginia Center on Aging.

Ageism is the most widespread and socially accepted form of prejudice and is often considered normal, according to the American Society on Aging. Because of this, the federal government passed legislation in 1967 forbidding age discrimination in the workplace. However, outside of the workforce, older adults are less protected and often experience discrimination in medical care, marketing messaging, legal matters and other areas.

It wreaks havoc on individuals and the communities they live in, Gendron said. When an individual believes negative messaging they receive about aging, it can cause them to withdraw and lose confidence in their ability to contribute in a meaningful way in their community. This is what makes ageism so insidious, she said. The overall community suffers.

“All of us are aging each day. It’s a universal experience from the time we are born. Aging is not decline. Aging is multi-faceted and multi-directional, Gendron explained.

Some of the most common concerns about aging are disability and dependency on others. “What we don’t realize is that humans at all stages of their lives are dependent on others -- from infancy into adulthood and beyond,” Gendron said. That’s why people marry and have children and blend extended family members because we are meant to stay connected to others at every stage of life, she noted.

Ageism Awareness Day

While gerontologists, academics and researchers have long understood the negative, pervasive effects stereotypes have on healthy aging, mainstream culture has not necessarily. Ageism Awareness Day began in Australia as an opportunity to educate and reframe the conversation on growing older for the general public, and the United States soon followed.

This year, Ageism Awareness Day is being recognized globally on Oct. 7.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins authored the 2016 national best selling book “Disrupt Aging: Living Your Best Life at Every Age” to change the conversation about what it means to grow older, she said. One hundred percent of AARP's royalties from the “Disrupt Aging” book sales support the charitable work of the AARP Foundation, and Jenkins receives no payment or profit from the book sales.

AARP also created the Disrupt Aging website with resources that include the “Disrupt Aging Classroom,” a two-hour, interactive curriculum that challenges students to examine their aging perceptions and think about how the growing aging population is relevant to their personal lives and future careers. It includes opportunities for volunteers who are interested in becoming a certified Disrupt Aging classroom facilitator.

Shining example of agelessness

Perhaps no better example of what aging outside stereotypes looks like is the story of Denise King-Miller. At age 69, she felt unhealthy and decided that by her next birthday she would be fit.

She undertook a body transformation, shedding 50 pounds and becoming a bodybuilder. “I worked out daily, winning first place in the first annual Body-N-Motion Transformation contest. At age 70, I trained for nine months and successfully completed my first Olympic triathlon,” King-Miller said.

She is now 73 and lives in Washington, D.C. and speaks on the topic of aging gracefully and with purpose. On Oct. 7, King-Miller will be speaking at the Life@50+ Academy: Planning for Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness forum hosted by AARP at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Centreville.

A year ago, King-Miller founded the Seventy Forever website to inspire other women to make a similar transformation for their own Seventy Forever journey.

In addition to her commitment to teach other women the power of transformation, King-Miller holds five academic degrees with five decades of professional experience as an educator, life coach, university professor, diversity expert, independent consultant, triathlete and ordained minister. She is a busy grandmother of four and said, “My grandchildren have a hard time keeping up with me.”

The Seventy Forever website offers free bi-monthly Zoom sessions on The Privilege of Aging, exploring ways to embrace agelessness. “My vision for Seventy Forever is a community that helps women envision a long, graceful, and vibrant life as they age,” she said.

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