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Why “toxic ageism” is harming everyone
Priscilla Long: Writer
BY PETER BOWES | WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 19, 2022
How often have you heard an older person refer to themselves as being so many “years young?” What about those who blame a “senior moment” for the occasional memory lapse? These are examples of what the writer Priscilla Long describes as “toxic ageism.” Oftentimes, she argues, ageist attitudes are perpetuated by the very people who’re thriving in old age, but for some reason, view being old as a state of mind or body to be disavowed. Priscilla is a prolific and award-winning author of science, poetry and creative nonfiction. At the age of 79, her latest work, Dancing with the Muse in Old Age, focuses on what she calls “creative engagement” and “purposeful lifestyle traits” as a road map for the aging process. In this interview, the Seattle-based author argues that ageism “poisons creativity” and explains why society should stop thinking of older people as “decrepit”.
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“In our subconscious minds, we think old is decrepit, bent over, whatever. So I do try to push back against the toxic ageism that is infusing our culture.”Priscilla Long
Topics covered in this interview include:
- Priscilla’s mission to understand the science and psychology of aging as she approaches 80
- How holding negative views of aging, from a young age, can hurt people and cause them to live shorter lives.
- Why ‘old’ should be disassociated with the sense that someone is “decrepit”
- The myth that ‘senior moments’ come with old age.
- Figuring out what lies ahead and preparing to live the final chapter to its fullest
- The transformation of a non-athlete into a Fitbit wearing walker who relishes a daily 10,000 step challenge.
- Facing up to the challenge of living longer than others in our circle of friends.
- Crossing age lines and making new friends.
- Why, in Priscilla’s view, society is “infused with toxic ageism” and should learn to “age better.”
- Retirement, encore careers and new missions.
- Setting a goal to write at least ten more books, as an octogenarian and beyond.
This interview with Priscilla Long was recorded on October 3, 2022 and transcribed using Sonix AI. Please check against audio recording for absolute accuracy.
Peter Bowes: Priscilla, welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast.
Priscilla Long: Thanks for having me, Peter. It’s good to be here.
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Peter Bowes: It’s really good to talk to you. I’m going to start with a question that in fact, at the beginning of the book you pose for yourself, and that is why focus on aging?
Priscilla Long: Well, the first and main reason is that my next birthday will be 8-0 – eighty. And I thought coming into this new area of life, I should be educated, I should educate myself, I should know the science of aging and as much as possible. I mean, there’s a lot of it. I should not just go along with kind of stereotypes or things you hear on the street. A lot of there’s a lot of misinformation out there. So, you know, in the first place, I really wanted to know about, for example, most old people are happy. That’s science. That’s not my opinion. I’m pretty happy person, but I’m very interested to know that, for example, it’s not about cognitive maintenance, it’s about cognitive development. Wow. And then the exercise piece, for example. So that was the first the real reason. And then secondly, I just needed models. I needed many models, as many models of people who are old. And I’m only 79. I mean, a lot of the people that I talk about are Wayne Thiebaud was 98 when he started a new body of work. Don Pellmann I think his name is ran the fastest of anyone to I think it was a 100 yard sprint at the age of or anyone over 100 to to run that fast. So I needed a lot of models and I found them.
Peter Bowes: You’ve already told us that you’re approaching 80 years old. I’m 60 years old, and I’m deliberately using the phrase ‘years old.’ And this is something that you go into in your book. Sometimes I ask people, and I’m not shy about asking people their age on this podcast, because this is a podcast about aging and longevity and growing older. But the use of the word old, some people prefer to say, Oh no, I’m 79 years young because they feel as if they don’t want to be associated with that word old. And that’s something that you push back against, isn’t it?
Priscilla Long: I think that that very well meaning expression I’m know or you’re oh, you’re 90 years young is ageist it’s because I mean without intending to be is because we think young is good and old is bad. And I think that old is good. I think young is good, too. But if you’re young. But I think that old is good. And so, yes, I push back against that. And I also like, as you do, I state my age, you know, fairly often. I’m not constantly stating it, but I stayed it fairly often because people in general tend to think historically have tended to think that I was younger than I am. And I think that’s because we think we all do. This is not just, you know, other people. We all think that old is decrepit and old is even in our subconscious minds. We think old is decrepit and bent over and whatever. So I do try to push back against the sort of the toxic ageism that is infusing our culture.
Peter Bowes: And people don’t just have those thoughts about the the bent over old person, the to use that word, the decrepit old person. They’re actually fed the images. We’re all fed these images of older people from a very young age. And for a lot of people, it influences them in terms of their attitude from that very young age.
Priscilla Long: And it’s it’s really destructive. And I think Becca Levy’s work at the Yale School of Public Health is really interesting, in which she has done studies which show that to have that type of negative view of aging actually causes you to live, from a young age, it causes people who have negative views of aging from a young age, live shorter lives. It hurts them, it harms them. And so ageism harms young people and of course old people.
Peter Bowes: And in a similar vein, another expression that through reading your book you’re not particularly keen on is senior moment, that phrase that is often used by people that actually varying ages in their lives. But as you get older, when you typically forget something where you’ve forgotten you’ve put the keys or forgotten a date or forgotten a birthday, it is excused by saying you’re having a senior moment, which again, you don’t think is a particularly positive use of words.
Priscilla Long: The phrase senior moment assumes that when you’re old, you’re forgetful. And the studies on this, this is why I wanted to really know what the on going science is about all of this, the studies on this are in the first place in communities where elders are respected. The elders don’t forget. I mean, that’s astonishing. Like in traditional Chinese communities in China and the American deaf community, elders remember as well as anyone. So that’s in itself very interesting. And then secondly, we have more information in our brains. So there was a study with a computer that simulated the human brain. And it was fed this computer brain was fed more and more information. And the more information it was fed, the longer the computer took to come up with the the right memory, the right answer. And so this scientist, he said, I believed in the dotage theory, but now I don’t. So we have a lot of information. We have huge numbers of vocabulary words and huge numbers of names going back decades and decades. So if I forget a word, which I do sometimes, but I’ve always forgotten a word, sometimes it’s not because I’m old. I think it’s not because I’m old, it’s because I’ve forgotten a word. One of my examples is I have a native plant garden, which gives me a great deal of pleasure in my yard. And I broke my leg in 2019 and I couldn’t basically go into it for almost nine months because of the the uneven terrain that I couldn’t walk correctly. So when I went back in, I forgot three of the names of the plants that I myself had planted. So I came back inside and I wrote down the names of all the plants that I could remember their names, which was 75. And so I figured, okay, I forgot three, but I remembered 75, which is actually a lot more than a lot of people can remember. So so I just don’t believe and also I really think that when we talk about senior moment all the time, we’re harming ourselves. It’s a negative view of ourselves. And since I think it’s basically false, we should drop it. We should drop that term.
Peter Bowes: I think that’s really interesting, the fact that as people are some people get older, the language they use about themselves is almost instinctively negative.
Priscilla Long: Yes.
Peter Bowes: As if throughout their lives they’ve been building up to this point that life will take a downturn, that things won’t be as good, and then actually use that as an excuse for a situation or for a type of behavior. I want to delve into that. But overwhelmingly, the theme of your book is a positive one. It is an optimistic one. It is a forward looking attitude that you have. Before we get into that, maybe you could just tell us a little bit about your life. I refer to the fact that you are a very prolific writer. You’ve written books on many different topics. Just give me a kind of a quick potted history of what you’ve done that’s brought you up to this point.
Priscilla Long: Well, I am a writer. I’m a poet, and I’m a science writer also. And I write books. I write essays, I write memoir essays. I compose a poem every week. And so what I’ve found, I mean a I should say a draft of a poem, it takes longer to get a real poem than a week, but I.
Peter Bowes: I would take much longer than the week.
Priscilla Long: That’s right. But I give it the good old try. I produce a non embarrassing, I would call it poem every week, ready to show. It’s very important to me to do this creative work. My whole communities around most are The transformation of a non-athlete to a Fi. writers or poets and not all though of course, but when I was like in my twenties and thirties, I worked full time as a printer and I struggled to find time to write. But I did find time to write. And I think the turning point moment was back in the early eighties. I read a book called I think it’s called Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, where she advises to write for 15 minutes a day, which seems like nothing. Well, that is not nothing. And that ever since I’ve written every day, every day, I think the science writing. I did write a weekly science column for the American Scholar, which is the columns are still up, the American Scholar website. That was just fascinating to do. Very, very time consuming. I finally had to stop because I thought I would be losing my poetry if I kept on because each column, you know, it went from the Higgs boson to Mars to earthworms to How do birds Fly? And so each one took me 30 to 40 hours to find out all the information. But it was great fun, and I just loved doing it.
Peter Bowes: At the beginning of this project, did you have in your mind what you wanted to achieve from this book as you set out to research it and talk to people?
Priscilla Long: I needed to know what lies ahead here. It has really helped me. That was, I hope, to help others. I hope to help everyone who reads this book. And I hope that the people who read it are middle aged and younger as well as older. Absolutely. Because of how much it has helped me. For example, the exercise piece, you know, the science is so clear on that. It’s so clear. I was an and here I’m speaking as a very non-athletic person. So I’m here to represent the non-athletic persons. As a child, I could never catch a ball. I just couldn’t do it. As it turns out, it’s because I don’t have depth perception. That’s very interesting. So the exercise piece persuaded me that I don’t have to become an athlete. I don’t have to jog marathons. Neither does anyone. But those 10,000 steps a day, I always do them now. I’m bonded to my Fitbit and I do the 10,000 steps. I find it fun. I don’t find it. And because I don’t have depth perception and I don’t drive, I walk. And I live in a place with very good public transportation, but I also walk a lot. And so I do that every day now, and I find it very gratifying. I find it a nice time, a nice interlude walking from here to there to get either to the coffee shop where I sometimes do work, or to the grocery store or wherever I’m going. I find it to be this interlude where, you know, you can look at the trees, the people, the cars, whatever. That has really changed for me because of writing this book.
Peter Bowes: This is the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. Our guest is the author Priscilla Long. We’re talking about her book, Dancing with the Muse in Old Age. On this subject of activity, of movement, of walking, even for a non-athletic person. What was interesting to me in the book, and it’s something that I’ve explored as well myself, and that is how every day movement, it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes the term exercise is a put off for a lot of people. The fact that you have to go out and and run or go to a gym or play a sport, you don’t have to do that. And I think that is crucial and it perhaps needs spelling out for a lot of people that maybe just choosing to wash the dishes by hand rather than using the machine in the corner of the room will actually be helpful to you because it will take you a little longer and it’ll involve bodily movement.
Priscilla Long: Exactly. Yes. And that is the other learning piece that to get up and go across the room. I mean, I’m a writer and so and I don’t write standing up. Some writers do write sending up, but I don’t but to get up and move around and to you know, if you’re trying to think of the next thing, get up and pace the floor, that’s a good way. Or to do a lot of your own chores. Some people suggest do your chores, you know, cleaning, mow the grass, walk down the street, take the stairs. All of that is just very helpful.
Peter Bowes: One thing that you say in the book is that there is nothing more vital to our well-being than a connection with others. The connection with other people. Yes. And again, this this didn’t come as a surprise to me because I’ve looked into this myself and talked to other people with that view. But I think it will come as a surprise to some people that as they look at their own health and perhaps analyze why they’re not doing so good at a certain age, that social connections are so crucial. Why do you think that is?
Priscilla Long: Well, we’re social animals. One issue is, as we’re growing older is that people predeceased us. This is a big deal the older you get. And so it’s very necessary to become proactive in finding connections in the arts community, which is where I am. And you know, a lot of people are in the arts community. It’s a wonderful community. There are so many ways to make connections and so many different groups and different activities and so on. So I think the fact that the older you get, the more of your old friends and family members are predisposing you adds a complication to it where, say, you’re a college age student in college, I mean, connections come with the scene. I mean, it’s hard, you know, that’s what you do. You make new friends and you go to class together and you party together and whatever. But this is not so true as we get older. And we also if we change occupations or something like that, then we’ve lost a whole context. So it’s very important to find new connections and to keep and also to cross the age lines, to find connections with younger people, older people, all ages of people.
Peter Bowes: I think that’s really important. And again, I think it’s something that a lot of people might not think about until they’re in that position, if they do enjoy longevity, if they do enjoy getting to a great age, that that is all very well. But if you’re doing better than all of the people around you who, as you say, predecease you who die before you do. One of the big problems for older people is loneliness. And clearly one of the big solutions to that is, as you say, is mixing with different generations and starting that process as young in life as you can. Don’t think about it when you get to 90, but try to apply that when you’re 40 or 50 Or 60 or 70.
Priscilla Long: Yes, exactly. I mean, a lot of middle-aged people, middle age like I don’t know what don’t ask me to define middle age, but middle-aged people are very busy. They’re raising their kids. They have a job. Maybe they have two jobs, they’re running a household and they really don’t have time to go out and sort of socialize with people they don’t know. So understood. But to just understand that what is going to happen is that your dear friends of your life are going to start predeceasing you, not you’re going to maybe you’ll predecease some of them, but this has happened to me. I mean, I’m only 79 and I’ve lost at least 15 people, not counting family members, old friends that I’ve known for many decades and that are dear friends of my life. And so that is going to happen. And we do need we are social beings and we and we need not only to like, socialize in this like superficial way, but to really connect with people. And in fact, that’s one reason I tell my age, by the way, because to connect to people, what you’re doing partly is you’re revealing yourself who you are. And if you’re pretending to be 60 when you’re actually 80, it means you weren’t here in 1963 in the civil rights movement sitting in. And I was so things like that, so thought given to really connecting with people. And who do you want to connect with and where are these people? What social circle or social, you know, as a poet, Oh, there’s like 17 venues. I could go and read my poetry at the open mic and meet people in every endeavor in life. There are circles of people doing that. There are knitting circles, there are book circles.
Peter Bowes: I guess one of the challenges, therefore, for if you want to use this word, influencers, people who like you can tell a good story. One of the challenges is to get over the notion that you’ve just been describing to younger people. A) To encourage and nurture younger people in terms of their involvement with older generations, but also for younger people to appreciate the importance of just having multi-generational associations, whether it’s people older than them or indeed younger than them. I think there is sometimes a resistance from younger generations to acknowledge that notion.
Priscilla Long: And I think some of it is that we need to spread around this knowledge about aging better because our society is so infused with toxic ageism that it affects us all. I mean, it’s just not it’s impossible not to be affected by it. And it affects young many young people. I think young people who have wonderful grandparents are helped very much by that. Of course, you know, adolescents and even college students are very involved with the peer group. And that’s perfectly that’s natural. But it’s yeah, it’s very nurturing to find mentors and to find not only mentors, but people you could teach about something. I mean, there are young people that I could learn from about all kinds of things. I mean, the obvious one is the technology, but that’s just one. Everyone has a fund of knowledge and information and things that fascinate them. And perspectives and points of view that maybe I don’t have. So it is fascinating to meet different people from different walks of life, and that includes the intergenerational.
Peter Bowes: You use the phrase toxic ageism. Do you think that as an issue to be aware of that ageism is underrated?
Priscilla Long: Oh, it totally is.
Peter Bowes: We hear about and appreciate the importance of understanding the negative implications of racism and of sexism and many other isms. But ageism, I get the impression sometimes is one of those things that maybe people know what it means, but it doesn’t really concern them too much.
Priscilla Long: Exactly. And I think that there is progress. You know, there are movements that have made racism more of an issue for people, for white people, say the civil rights movement. Now Black Lives Matter. I mean, there are movements that sort of have a message like this is how it feels to be in this position. And then people some people, you know, learn that. And so and there have there has been a movement against ageism, but it hasn’t. Maggie Kuhn, of course, in the Gray Panthers. But in that she was, I guess, the pioneer, unless there’s somebody else that they don’t know about. But but there needs to be a lot more. I mean, and it should be a publicly ongoing campaign of us personally to tell people the science of it as well as, come on, you know, let’s not be like Mark Zuckerberg, who said young people are just smarter. You know, really, that’s just so obnoxious. But it’s also just not true. It’s bad science.
Peter Bowes: I couldn’t agree more. It certainly isn’t true. One issue that you write about in the book that really fascinates me is retirement. And you write about both the positive and negative implications of people who are forced to retire, whether on the one hand, people feel liberated by the process of retiring and having a blank page in their diary the next day and the world at their fingertips. Whereas others, of course, react negatively to retirement and it clearly seems not to suit them very well.
Priscilla Long: Well, I think that in the United States, I think forced retire, it’s like forced is the keyword here because forced retirement is very destructive. And I talk about Ann Truet, the artist who was the sculptor who was forced to retire. That would be illegal now in the United States, but of course, across the world, it’s it is legal and usual. I think. So. I think that people should, in my opinion. I mean, I’m never going to retire. I’m a writer. Am I going to retire? Am I going to say, oh, okay, I’m retired now. No more poems? I don’t think so.
Peter Bowes: I don’t think you are. No, I hope not.
Priscilla Long: And plus, I teach, you know, and teaching a very stimulating to me and very it’s hard work, but it’s I teach adult writers, developing professional writers, and it’s just very stimulating to me. And in the way I teach, I give the assignments and I do the assignments that I give and give them. Give my work to the other writers. I think if you have a difficult job that you’ve done, I mean, my sister just retired from she was an ICU nurse and that’s a hard job and she was 70 this year. And of course, COVID made it even more difficult. And so she was happy, She loved and she loved her work. I have to say, she and she was really good at it. And that’s like the most skilled nursing you can get. This is the ICU. This is the intensive care nursing. And she retired and she’s having a wonderful time. And I think it was great that she did retire. She’s hiking. She’s a bird person. She’s a she’s a gardener. And this is her first year. So we’ll see. But I think you can either stay where you are and not retire, which is an option, or retire and then have what we call an encore career, a new mission, whether it’s paid or not paid, a new mission, a new skill to learn, a new skill, a new, a new world.
Peter Bowes: And in terms of your world, we get the message you are not planning to retire. And I’m very happy to hear that. From what you learned yourself through writing this book. Perhaps the things that surprised you or things that you hadn’t realized before. How do you see the years ahead for you? How do you think about your own longevity?
Priscilla Long: Well, I think a lot about it, actually. First of all, I plan to write ten more books. No, I think. Okay. Is that too few? I mean, I’m only 79, so and I actually am not a fast writer, but I, I write several books at a time, typically. So is ten is the ambition to write ten more books too modest? I don’t know how to answer that question, but yes, we can’t control our fate. I mean, we could get run over by a truck this afternoon. Hopefully not.
Peter Bowes: Hopefully not. Yes.
Priscilla Long: But I hope to live a long time. And as I think most of us do in health, of course, and I at least plan to try to influence that by not only the exercise and how I eat and so on, but also to keep productive. And I think the big challenge in the creative arts is how do you be productive but not repeat yourself? I mean, I’ve done so much, not only the seven books, but also many, many, many, many articles and poems and and different other writing. So how do I go forward and find new doors to open, not repeat myself, not just churn over the same old stuff, but go in new directions with new forms, new discoveries, and new ways of creating? That’s a big challenge for the older creator, I think. But that’s how I see it. Yeah, I mean, I live in a little house. I love my little house and I hope to stay here forever. And when my nephew, I have a little nephew now, he’s almost 40. But anyway, when he was quite small, he got he had this period of being very anxious about death. And, you know, he was like three or four. And I assured him, I said, don’t worry, you know, I’m not going to die until I’m 103. So don’t worry about it. It’s a long time from now. And so now I’ve changed that to 106. I think that’s a good time. I don’t know. So, yeah, I hope to live a long time and live in this house, hopefully, and produce more work and connect with more people and connect with my work more and get to know people more and learn and learn. Learning the piece of learning is really important.
Peter Bowes: Well, I think what you’re doing is hugely inspiring. I think this book is excellent and I would really would recommend it to everyone. We’ve only just touched the surface in terms of the detail that you go into. It is richly researched and referenced. I really enjoyed reading through the references and it distracted me because I then went off and pursued some of those references. It’s that kind of book, so I really enjoyed that. And I just, based on what you’ve just said, look forward to reading at least another ten from you in the coming yearS.
Priscilla Long: Thank you. Thank you so much, Priscilla.
Peter Bowes: Priscilla thank you very much indeed for your time.
Priscilla Long: Thank you.
Peter Bowes: And if you would like to read the book, I will put a link to it in the show notes for this episode. Dancing with the Muse in Old Age. You’ll find the details in the show notes for the LLAMA podcast. It LLAMApodcast.com. This has been a HealthSpan Media production. You can contact me at Peter Bowes. We’re also at LLAMA podcast in social media. Thank you so much for listening.
The Live Long and Master Aging podcast, a HealthSpan Media LLC production, shares ideas but does not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind, or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should consult your doctor.