In 1939 the dark comedy play Arsenic and Old Laceopened on Broadway and became an immediate hit. The New York Times reviewer wrote that “It is so funny that none of us will ever forget it.”
Indeed. The plot involves two spinster aunts who lure lonely old men into their home to poison them with glasses of homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of” cyanide. Then their nephew, Teddy, (who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt) buries the bodies in the cellar. The ladies say that they are doing this “for charity.”
Arsenic And Old Lace is based on a notorious serial killer who murdered the elderly for profit. We make no connection to the plight of the elderly victims because the focus is on the killers. In this same sense, because society tends not to focus on the elderly, their victimization is largely ignored. Unless there is obvious evidence of foul play, law enforcement, the health care sector and society in general, have a tendency to believe that the elderly (versus other age groups) always die of natural causes. This often wrong assumption can be partially attributed to something called “ageism.”
Ageism is the tendency to perceive older persons in many negative ways, including being debilitated, unworthy of attention and “less alive.” When an older person forgets a name, they are senile. When a younger person forgets they are forgetful, or are having a “senior moment.”
Ageism perpetuates prejudice, discrimination and mistreatment of elders and psychological studies have found that it actually shortens the lifespans of elders.
Respecting our elders on the other hand, gives them longevity and brings us humility. A Yale University study found that those with positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer and moreover, older adults exposed to positive stereotypes have significantly better memory and balance. And how do we respect our elders? We can be patient, spend time, listen, tell them we love and appreciate them, and look for their wisdom because it’s there, say’s Mark Twain …
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
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