Gerontophobia is a commonly recognized phenomenon. It is generally defined as an anxiety disorder characterized by an abnormal, irrational and intense fear of the elderly, of becoming old or both. It has been asserted that the cause of gerontophobia is usually tied in some way to fear of death, which can be symbolized by becoming elderly. Gerontophobia can cause some people to withdraw from situations in which they know the elderly will be present. People who have this phobia in an intense way can become clinically anxious or depressed and tend to worry about growing old, perhaps because they fear being left alone with no one to take care of or comfort them in their old age.
In a recent lecture at Oxford University about “Aging, Stigma and Disgust,” eminent philosopher Martha Nussbaum claimed that popular culture, which obsessively glorifies youth, also stigmatizes the elderly, encouraging the young to regard their elders with a disgust closely connected with fear. She argued that this produces widespread injustice, discrimination and unhappiness. With a colleague, Nussbaum is writing a book about this, with the working title “Aging Thoughtfully.”
Are her hypotheses true in Taos County? It was estimated that in 2015, 38 percent of the residents of Taos County were ages 55 and older and 31.3 percent were ages 15 to 44. By contrast, 25 percent of the residents of California were ages 55 and older; 29 percent of New Mexicans as a whole were ages 55 percent and older, and 45 percent were between ages 19 and 44. In our county we seemingly live in the land of the elderly.
We don’t yet know if Professor Nussbaum’s assertions about stigmatization and disgust are based upon data, her anecdotal observations, or having felt stigmatized herself as a now 70-year-old woman. I am not a philosopher or sociologist, but at age 75 I have had some experience of being elderly. I have never felt stigmatized as a result of others seeing my aging physical appearance. Perhaps it is different for a woman, if her self-worth is tied up in being perceived as attractive as she was when she was younger, or if she had a longstanding fear of losing her beauty as she aged. This is not for me to say.
To give Professor Nussbaum credit, our culture does glorify youth. We do live in the country of the young, one in which the culture, led by the mass media, puts a premium on good looks and physical beauty. But I don’t think that in general young people think the elderly are disgusting. I suspect that many don’t think about old people much at all. The elderly are often virtually invisible to them. And, if I am to judge by the experience of my friends and peers, the notion that we would one day be the elderly was not part of our thought process until we passed perhaps age 50. We couldn’t imagine it. But in my entire life I have never heard anyone characterize old people as disgusting or seen them stigmatized, much less as people to be feared.
How common is gerontophobia? That depends on who you ask. Dr. Nussbaum would have one believe that it is widespread. Others assert that only very rarely people have a fear of elderly people in general. They theorize that the elderly reminds this cohort of the aging process and brings up underlying fears of growing old themselves. I think that Professor Nussbaum is addressing what she perceives to be a cultural phenomenon, rather than a widespread clinical condition that requires treatment.
Finally, as to whether gerontophobia “...produces widespread injustice, discrimination and unhappiness” as Nussbaum asserts, we will have to wait for her to produce statistical evidence. Certainly, the phenomenon exists. Do I see Taos County through rose-colored glasses? I invite older readers of the Taos News to comment on whether they have experienced being the recipients of gerontophobia. I invite younger readers to comment whether they hold disgust for or fear of the elderly.
Jones is a resident of Taos.