'Aren't you a bit old for that?' Here's where you can put your ageism

BERLIN: Joining Tinder, driving a car, hiking a mountain range: There comes a time when we do normal things and younger people around us begin making comments like: "You're getting too old for that."

Gerontology experts say discrimination like this is extremely hurtful.

It's a sensitive subject for politicians, traffic psychologists and countless families worldwide: elderly people who want to keep driving.

How risky is it? Should there be a cut-off age? Should licence renewal procedures be required?

The issue is part of a larger one: ageism - more specifically, prejudice and discrimination on the basis of advanced age.

If you're the son or daughter of someone starting to show their age who still gets behind the wheel, you might be worried they're more likely to have an accident. It's the same if your 80-year-old parent wants to take a long journey or set out alone on a hike in the hills.

Can it be wrong in such situations to say, "You're too old for that!" in the hope of dissuading them? Yes, gerontologists say.

"We can't tell an elderly person, 'You're not allowed to do that.' We don't have the right," says psychologist Andreas Kruse, professor emeritus at Heidelberg University's Institute of Gerontology, chairman of the German federal government’s Age Report Commission, and a member of the German Ethics Council until 2022.

"Telling someone they can't do something simply because they've reached a certain age is a generalization that absolutely must be avoided. It's a source of discrimination," he says, excludes older people and can be extremely hurtful.

Nina Lauterbach-Dannenberg, a research assistant for the German Elderly Assistance Board (KDA), which is under the patronage of Germany's president, agrees that remarks of this kind are inappropriate.

"More than anything, they say something about the speaker's own views and stereotypes, namely that there's something they think an older person is incapable of doing," she says, adding that misconceptions of old age are often to blame.

But what if the reaction time of your elderly motorist/parent has slowed considerably, and/or their eyesight has worsened. Or you suspect they're developing dementia? If you have reservations about their ability to drive safely, the experts advise addressing the matter tactfully.

You could say, for example, "You may no longer meet the necessary standards of some abilities essential for safe driving."

"This," Kruse remarks, "sends a totally different message than, 'You're too old!'"

In addition, you could suggest that for safety's sake - theirs and others' - they have their driving competence assessed by an expert examiner. "That's not disparaging," says Kruse.

Lauterbach-Dannenberg, too, thinks it's justifiable to express your concerns, and says that in some cases it might help to bring up the matter together with someone else whom the person trusts.

"It could be a friend, neighbour - any trusted person at all - or someone from a family counselling or professional nursing advice centre."

But no matter how delicately you raise the question of your parent parting with their car keys, there's always a chance they'll baulk. What then?

"If there's really a risk to life and limb, you've got to intervene, of course," says Lauterbach-Dannenberg.

"However, should the parent insist on retaining this aspect of their independence and self-determination, as a family member you must learn to tolerate it to some extent - as hard as that may be."

So you should respect your parent's autonomy - and perhaps try to reach a compromise.

"You could consider together whether a change of behaviour, such as driving more slowly or only taking familiar routes, might minimize some risks," suggests Kruse.

Then you should put your heads together and figure out how to smoothly phase out the driving - preferably preparing alternatives that will ensure the person's continued mobility.

In other words, as Lauterbach-Dannenberg puts it, "very patiently keep presenting different options, but never force the person to accept them.

Old people are also adults and have the right to be unreasonable."

If, for instance, they plan a trip that their children think might be too risky, "you should ask whether they're confident they have the necessary capability," advises Kruse. "If so, then it's a good thing."

He says he'd tell someone over 80 in this situation the same thing he'd tell a 65-year-old: "I'd advise them to have a health check-up to make sure they're not carrying a risk factor that could seriously spoil their enjoyment of the activity."

And what if the elderly father or mother is planning to do something that isn't risky, but that their son, daughter or grandchild thinks is inappropriate - say, sign up for a dating app?

"If they say they want to fall in love again, I say why not?" remarks Kruse. "I believe we have to allow a person the freedom to decide what they want."

Above all, younger people have to change their mindset and take a different perspective, namely by not focusing on the infirmities of old age, but rather appreciating and emphasising its possibilities.

In any case, Kruse says, a person's age is never an attribute that sufficiently characterises them.

Quite the contrary, "because the older we get, the more diverse we become."
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