An open letter to my friends

I love hearing from you. I love hearing about your families, your interests, about what excites you and keeps you motivated; I even love hearing about your problems. So write, please, whenever you can. But please don't forward jokes and cartoons about growing old because they don't make me laugh. In fact, and this may surprise you, I find them offensive.

Why? Because you and I are not doddering, forgetful, incapable, fossilized, worn out, lazy, stupid, or incapable of making decisions. Are we getting older? Yes, indeed—everyone does. Are we dying? No doubt—everyone does. But those incontrovertible facts don't mandate the stereotypes that lead this paragraph.

For instance, I have a paraplegic friend who at age 69 is learning to ski again. Her teachers report that she really "kicks ass" on the slopes, and she's loving and mastering a skill once given up as lost. Another friend, in his mid-70s, is a  poet who leads bicycle outings twice a week for the local cycle club. A neighbor in her 60s is building her own house—well, she had the outside finished by a contractor but everything from the sheetrock in is her work, including the electricity, the plumbing, the cabinet making and the floors and doors. And it's beautiful.

An English friend in her 60s volunteered for a year in Tanzania, helping set up medical clinics for the Masai. My cousin, 70, has taken up yoga three times a week while babysitting a grandchild and helping a friend get a new business started. Yet another old friend saw her husband through early onset Alzheimer's, and if you think that's child's play, think again. It doesn't stop there. A 95-year-old friend of my parents is the smartest and most astute observer of American culture that we know and a local artist in his 80s is getting ready for his upcoming Portland exhibition.

It didn't tax my brain to come up with these people and with time I could name more. So could you. So it puzzles me why we encourage our friends to imagine us and themselves as objects of ridicule.

There are plenty of genuinely funny things in this world, we don't have to degrade ourselves to achieve a fleeting laugh. Yes, some of us are occasionally forgetful, lots of us take pills, and life isn't always fun. But it can be funny, and we could share that genuine fun in healthy, supportive ways.

Am I overreacting? Possibly. Maybe every laugh is worth grabbing. I admit we snickered behind the backs of our parents and grandparents, but isn't it time to grow up? Ageism—and make no doubt, that's what these cartoons and jokes are about—is as unfounded as racism, as hurtful as sexism, and as limiting as any other ism you can name. And we're doing it to ourselves! I'd like our generation to end ageism so that my daughter and granddaughter don't have to endure being laughed at behind their backs, pitied for no reason, talked down to by clerks, or assumed to be ignorant, incapable, ill-informed, incapacitated, or even ugly—when they're not.

Please, the next time you're tempted to forward a cartoon or joke about growing older, don't. Stop ageism in its tracks by taking a moment, instead, to send a line or two about yourself, your thoughts, your life—or about that funny thing that happened to you this morning. That's much more valuable to me than a cheap laugh, and I'll even promise to answer.