This post is by my wife, Susan Haworth, from her blog at CambiosCoaching.com
I recently had dinner with someone twenty years my junior who used the phrase senior moment to describe an incident where her memory failed her. This is a phrase I don’t use so I was both amused and annoyed that someone barely entitled to her AARP membership would use such an expression.
What intrigued me was the acceptability of making such a stereotypical comment. I dare say, I wouldn’t say to a friend of color that I was running on CP time. The difference, of course, is that I am not and will never be a person of color (as far as I can tell) but my younger friend will, if the cards are stacked in her favor, be an old person eventually.
Still, attributing a forgetful or disoriented occasion as a senior moment perpetuates the stereotype of an older person who is out of touch with reality. Some older people are out of touch as are some younger ones. (For example, those under 40 are more likely to believe that COVID vaccines will implant chips in their bodies or magnetize them than are older adults. But that’s a topic for another blog post.) Cluelessness is an equal opportunity affliction.
Forgetfulness vs Memory Loss
Forgetfulness is not the same as memory loss which follows a progressive path in those suffering from dementia Forgetfulness happens at any age for a variety of reasons. Lack of sleep, depression, anxiety, hypothyroidism and use of certain substances, such as alcohol and tranquilizers, are common culprits. None of these conditions occurs exclusively among the aged.
Perhaps the most common reason for forgetfulness is lack of focus. Our belief that we can multitask with success is a big reason we lose focus. Our brains are not wired to do two things at once, says Stanford University researcher and director of its Memory Lab, Anthony Wagner. We can switch from one task to another but we can’t do two things at once.
Given that so many of us, young and old, are dropping the ball for a variety of reasons, why are older adults the butt of so many jokes, and “humorous” birthday cards about forgetfulness?
Fear of Aging
Although a senior moment is mostly used to describe a memory lapse, it can also be used to refer to general incompetence. In both cases, the reference is negative. Never does someone say something wise and insightful and describe this as a senior moment. The danger in this systemic stereotyping is that it promotes fear in the young and becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for the aged.
Fear of aging has negative outcomes for both those who foster ageism in their speech and those who hear it. Negative physical outcomes have been observed among the elderly who have internalized ageist comments and behaviors.
Certainly, we use the senior moment phrase to make light of our gaffes or lapses. This expression deflects any serious concern over our competency. Criticizing or correcting others who use what could be seen as an innocuous, off-handed comment may be viewed as being humorless. I think we can all find better, smarter ways to express our humor than promoting ageist beliefs.
Our eyes are thought to be the windows into our soul. Likewise, our mouths—more precisely, the words that emerge from them—are the windows into our minds. Our language conveys our beliefs and our biases.
A series of studies have found that mindfulness exercises can reduce biased attitudes as well as biased behaviors. Even simple instructions about how mindfulness works helped study participants overcome some of their biases.
Ageism is both subtle and pervasive and has detrimental effects on everyone. Anti-aging lotions and potions have us sinking our money into useless products that are intended to keep the natural and inevitable process of aging at bay. The language we use, the jokes we tell and the birthday cards we purchase communicate that aging is wrong and it’s an error.
As a society, we’ve been chipping away at the acceptability of sexist and racist language. Ageist language is our next linguistic battle. Let’s retire the phrase senior moment along with other words that stereotype older adults. Calling someone a senior citizen should be tolerated if we call those under 62 or 65 junior citizens.
As we age, we are all capable of having older adult moments: experiencing and learning something new, changing an attitude, and turning a stranger into a friend. These events along with the passage of time are to be celebrated, not feared.
“The youth can walk faster, but the elder knows the road.”