A New Age Dawns

by Kira Vermond

photography by Horst Herget

If there is anyone who can put a more optimistic spin on aging, it’s Brad Meisner (MSc ’07; PhD ’11). The professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science has spent more than a decade studying society’s views on older people and how it impacts everything from well-being to whether older adults feel jazzed to pick up a new hobby after retirement.

Growing older, Meisner is convinced, is not to be maligned or feared. After all – if we’re lucky – aging happens to all of us. Why not embrace the journey?

“How do we make aging more desirable? How do we look forward to it?” he says. “There’s so much growth that happens later in life, but that’s not usually part of the conversations we have about aging.”

The subtext there is the expectation of unattractiveness in older people – and when you’re not unattractive, that’s exceptional

Meisner is trying to change the conversation with research that recently earned him a coveted Mid-Career Award from the Canadian Association on Gerontology. He focuses on what’s called “positive ageism,” subtle ways we reinforce negative aging stereotypes often without realizing we’re doing it.

“An example would be, ‘Oh, you look good for your age,’” he explains. “This is intended as a compliment, but the subtext there is the expectation of unattractiveness in older people – and when you’re not unattractive, that’s exceptional.”

The problem with positive ageism, and the general assumption that aging goes hand in hand with decline, is it’s easy to internalize negative stereotypes and decide we’re too old to swim, learn a new language or even make new friends.

Meisner says it can lead to lower self-esteem, self-worth and even less will to live. Call it “stereotype embodiment theory” or self-fulfilling prophecy, these subtle forms of discrimination have an effect on how we treat others and whether we see ourselves as people who have plenty to give back.

Chris Ardern (BSc ’00; MSc ’02), associate dean of Research and Innovation in the Faculty of Health, is convinced Meisner is advancing knowledge and innovation aimed at aging. A fellow member of the York University Centre for Aging Research and Education (YU-CARE) where researchers stretch across silos to tackle complex questions, he sees how Meisner’s work makes a difference. Not only can it contribute to training new health and health-care professionals, it also moves the needle on dialogue in the media and beyond.

“He’s a really passionate advocate for health-care access for older adults,” Ardern says.

So it’s no wonder Meisner got angry when, in the panicked early days of the pandemic, there was serious talk about who should get access to limited resources. Would it be the 30-year-old or the 80-year-old? Whose life was worth more? Then came the awful social media digs that called the virus a “boomer remover” and worse.

“So I literally rage-wrote two articles,” he says. “I was just like, this is a violation of human rights. We’ve been through this before. Reality check, people.”

Positive ageism reared its head in many ways during the pandemic too, with younger people stepping in to “protect” their parents and grandparents. The intentions were good, but many older adults – with 60 or 70 years of experience taking care of themselves – suddenly felt infantilized.

It’s time to rethink age entirely, says Meisner. Some 80-year-olds are as healthy on a functional level as a 55-year-old, and vice versa.

“Long story short, you cannot rely on someone’s chronological age,” he says. “That’s merely how long we’ve been alive. It’s a measure of time.” ■

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