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Navigating Ageism in Later Life

Yale Public Health Magazine, Focus: Spring 2023
by Ruth Taber ‘54


Point of View

Throughout the world, people are living longer and ageism is on the rise. The term “ageism” was coined in 1969 by Robert Butler, founding director of the National Institute on Aging. Its simplest definition is a prejudice against older people. Some think this “ism” is a relative newcomer to society’s list of prejudices, but the concept of ignoring, disparaging, or treating elders poorly goes back to ancient times.

Should we care about ageist attitudes? Unless you have dreams of immortality, everyone - barring disease, accidents, and natural disasters - will eventually be old, and our attitudes (positive and negative) matter. Yale Professor Becca Levy recently wrote a book about age beliefs, Breaking the Age Code. Her numerous scientific studies attest to the power of attitudes (including age beliefs) to extend our life span.

When I received my degree from Yale School of Public Health in 1954, I looked forward to my role as health educator with the New York City Department of Health. I was going to spread the word about “healthy eating, preventing disease and accidents,” and, generally, anything to improve the lives of my city’s residents. Aging was certainly not on the agenda. You reached age 60? Good job!

More than 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the United States. Many people are living well into their 90s but the health and care of citizens in their elder years needs public health interventions. More attention should be given to housing, such as the village concept for older people who want to remain in their homes, and the Green House model of small, residential‐style houses shared by elders. Transportation often is inadequate, making shopping, visiting the doctor or dentist, or just interacting with others difficult.

As for medical care, we are in an age of over-screening, over-prescribing, and general over-medicalization. Almost all medications prescribed for elders were never tested on anyone over 65! Elderly patients are poorly represented in clinical trials, which means there is inadequate evidence and knowledge about how they respond to medications.

In 2022, there were only 431 board-certified geriatricians in my state (Texas)! How can we entice more medical students to select geriatrics as their specialty? One problem is that geriatricians are paid less than specialists in many other medical fields. Another idea: instead of generalized emergency care centers, how about centers that offer specialized emergency care for older people?

Unfortunately, our society excels in the business of anti-aging. The deluge of marketing campaigns attempting to relieve us of our money with promises of “successful aging” and long life are no different than old-fashioned hucksters who sold false miracle cures for common ailments. How many of us have been subjected to TV commercials portraying an attractive couple (a few gray hairs added), active and happy, telling us how improved their memory is since they started taking memory pills? And why don’t we question how can they know what their memory would be like without the pills?

I feel qualified to write about ageism since I’m 94 and not ready to close shop. I still write occasionally for local publications and haven’t decided when to retire. Dr. Louise Aronson, author of the must-read Elderhood - Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, says most eloquently: “Elderhood is life’s third and final act – and what it looks like is up to us.”

Ruth (Migdal) Taber received her MSPH from Yale School of Public Health in 1954. Her undergraduate degree was a BS in music education from NYU (1948). She was a professional pianist/accompanist in New York City before attending Yale.

Taber retired to El Paso, Texas, with her late husband, Ben-Zion Taber, MD, in 1990 where she was one of the founders of the Center for Lifelong Learning at the University of Texas at El Paso. She was a food/travel/culture columnist for the El Paso Times for more than 25 years. She also has written for Travesias, a Mexican food and travel magazine; Sabroso magazine based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and most recently El Paso Inc., a weekly El Paso business journal, and El Paso Matters, an online El Paso newspaper. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Many remember the iconic image of Elvis Presley receiving a polio vaccine in 1956. But few may know that Yale alumna Ruth Taber helped make the event happen. Read more here.