Reham Abuatiq is a PhD candidate at the rehabilitation sciences program in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington. Reham’s research goal is to advocate for the rights and well-being of young adults with disabilities. Reham’s ultimate goal is to empower people with disabilities and to facilitate their inclusion in their communities.
Are there any preconceptions that you had about aging? It could be the aging process itself, or just different ages that have been proven wrong by personal experience.
Yes. So, I am 39 years old. When I was younger, the ideas I had of “that person” who is 40 years of age was informed from my own culture. I thought they should have been, you know, married with their own kids … and I do. However, other things like not having as much energy as when you’re young and carrying more weight—that was my image of people who were 40, because that’s how I perceived them. But I am now on that doorstep—that’s what we call it in Jordan—as I’m approaching 40 years of age. I still feel like I’m in my thirties, and I am uncomfortable with the number 40, honestly. So yeah, this is my experience. I had the concept of an age linked to a specific description and image in my mind—because of the way I was raised—the way we were raised to respect elders starts with your brothers and the sisters. And anyone in the community, even your neighbors. I felt shocked because I didn’t want to be “that woman” in my mind.
It reminds me of how it can kind of go one of two ways a majority of the time: we feel like we’re running away from age. Or we prematurely limit ourselves and expect the worst and we’re sitting waiting for it, for older age to descend upon us.
Yes, yes, yes. And I got my perception of certain ages through my family, mainly my mom, because I’m so attached to her. When I applied for my PhD, I was 36. And she said, “Oh, you’re old … you should have done it in your youth.” And I said, “No, I want to pursue and finish this, even if I’m the age I am now. I want to do it because it’s my dream, it should not just be about my age. I felt that in my culture, views on age controlled the way we should act and behave in life—even whether we receive an education or not.
You’re speaking about how societal and cultural perceptions trickle down to communities, to your family dynamics, and then to yourself. And how there can be the sense of judgment and standards from which your life is compared. If you’re going against the grain, how can we grapple with the friction that results, which is very difficult …
Thinking about milestones and the ages associated with them, the image of someone who is 40 made me think of being done with everything in life and just trying to enjoy the rest of life: married, having a regular job (not studying!), and enjoying time with your kids as they’re growing up being main parts of this. So yeah, I think it depends on the age itself. I dislike describing it like this, but these ideas of older age and the negative connotations like the ideas I’ve described were revolving in my head. I remember feeling depressed thinking about being 42 once I’m finished with my doctoral program and feeling like I wouldn’t have “enough time” to buy a house, buy a car, live a decent life … these whirling ideas and thoughts were just there.
There are such oppressive, misconstrued narratives about certain ages and what is to be “expected” by certain landmark ages. I became increasingly intrigued by ageism because it inevitably intersects with other isms; it crosses paths with socioeconomic status, gender, and aspects like our beauty standards, like our anti-aging industry.
I agree, especially in thinking about the way your mind controls this narrative. We’re sitting right now in the middle of all of it, and if you don’t step back and take the time to look at the bigger picture, you won’t realize this false representation and expectation of aging. And that’s what I’ve experienced, even for whatever you want to push back against it. Your closest friends and family just have these ageist and distorted views on aging—it’s all embedded. So, it’s hard to push back. It’s really hard to resist that mindset when it is so accepted and part of your life.
Yes, these ideas are so enmeshed in our daily lives with culture and society emphasizing these notions, which are then absorbed and emphasized further by our family and friends. Something that I frequently think about is the ways in which the pandemic revealed punitive ideas of older age and the lack of empathy towards older individuals.
During the pandemic, I felt annoyed that there were restrictions that I felt did not value the youth or elder population, which is wrong. I work as a physical therapist, so I have lots of interactions with people living with disabilities, and I was shocked that here we have institutions for individuals with [severe] disabilities in the United States. In Jordan, people with disabilities are taken care by their families (parents mainly and siblings if parents die). The flexibility to switch to online work and education happened quickly and helped facilitate during the pandemic. However, these options were not accepted prior to the pandemic, even though they provided more accessible education and work to many people. On the other hand, older people who are not familiar with the use of technology and online networking were isolated from the world and had very limited communication and socialization options.
In the Islamic culture, it is wrong to define or limit the value of the person to their inability or ability to be productive, age, or whatever other standards that it may be. My grandmother used to live with us in the same house when she got older and was not able to take care of herself. My mom, dad, brother, and me—we all took care of her. It is an ethical obligation and cultural norm. In addition, it’s actually a big stigma if someone does not take care of their parents as they age and if you put them in care homes or facilities, it’s not socially or culturally accepted because doing so is considered a big shame. When one’s parents get old, it’s the time when their children pay them back. We are supposed to take care of our parents because they took care of us when we were kids.
And how you’re describing it … It sounds like it goes beyond a duty and is instead an honor, a privilege. In thinking about values, there are these unique ways that different regions and cultures and communities discuss and approach aging. Despite these cultural differences we might have, we’re all going to age and there is still a lot of work to do to maintain respect and dignity for all ages. How do you think we can make this more of a global effort?
Start with yourself and your area of control. So, for me, I would start with my family—my kids and my sisters—because I have a good relationship with them. I have seven sisters. I would try to infuse that in them, like if the topic comes up and the topic of “becoming old” comes up of the typical, “You know—you’re not good enough. You’re gaining weight, or you cannot run, you cannot work.” Working on changing their aging perspectives and not thinking negatively about it. And linking that to teaching my kids that age doesn’t limit your abilities/inabilities, or even define you as a person. That’s where I would start.
I appreciate that your first step is self-reflection. This one scholar in ageism says that ageism is in the water we swim in and the air we breathe. And so, someone at first might think, “Oh, is this really a problem? I don’t think negative attitudes about aging are really a form of discrimination.” Because again, it’s so widely employed. It blends in.
Exactly. It’s like ableism. You might not even notice it because when you accept something as a norm, you don’t even recognize it as an issue. Being aware of it is the starting point.
Yes, so how do you think we can shift towards not overgeneralizing and instead accounting for the individualized lived experiences of all ages? We still have this conglomerated idea of “older adults” as someone who is 65 being grouped with someone who is 80, and we know that individual experiences even within the same gross age are inherently different.
Yes, and it minimizes their lives. In Jordan, we have these same notions and overgeneralizations that apply for education, and even like statistics about age groups—all the same categories you’ve described. I’ve never noticed that before. It makes me think about my friend who specialized in geriatrics rehabilitation, and I never knew that there was something like that. And then I thought, of course, that makes sense—but I just hadn’t considered it before. There are lots of people who live beyond 65, but for us, it can feel like it all stops at 65. I hadn’t thought about the continuity as much before.
My dad is 75 but I prefer not to count his age because I don’t want to lose him. I wish we could at least be aware of older individuals and their presence and needs as they approach new stages of life with a range of different abilities. Because we are so busy doing whatever we have to do on a daily basis and achieving our life goals. When we get so wrapped up in this, we don’t necessarily think of older individuals, even our own family members. I feel bad because we take them for granted and focus on people who we see as able and productive.
And it’s a systematic issue, not just a one-person issue. It is essentially built within the structure of the health care system, the community, and everything else because we are focused on youth and younger adults. I guess that is linked to the way that the economy is based, as those who are productive provide benefits to the economy. As a physical therapist, I focus on early childhood and adulthood, but this discussion has opened my mind to thinking about refocusing on how this informs aging and older adults, and the growth that is still to come throughout one’s life.
Contributor Sarah McKiddy is a second-year PhD in Nursing Science student at the University of Washington. Her research interests include cognitive health, music-based interventions, and the intersectionality of ageism.