Getting Past Ageism

A milestone is defined as an “action or event marking a significant change or stage in development.”  It is usually a good thing:  a graduation, a wedding, the birth of a child, a retirement party.

Milestone birthdays occur every ten years (30, 40, 50, etc.) or designate a cultural shift from one phase in life to another.  In America, traditionally this includes the age of adulthood (21), middle age (40), retirement age (65) and old age (80).

Milestone birthdays are sometimes met with ambivalence and even dread.  Did you know that, worldwide, the suicide rate increases around milestone birthdays?  Clearly, we need a better way to look at aging.

Sad Commentary

I’ve been thinking about this issue because of Cheslie Kryst, who won the Miss USA contest in 2019.  At 28, she was the oldest contestant ever to win.

By all accounts, Kryst was as accomplished and intelligent as she was beautiful.  A track athlete in college, she went on to earn (simultaneously) an MBA and a law degree at Wake Forest University.  When she won the Miss North Carolina pageant, she was an attorney who took pro-bono cases for incarcerated people fighting unjust sentences.  After earning the Miss USA title, she became a correspondent for “Extra,” the television news show.

A few months after turning 30, Kryst jumped to her death from her luxury high-rise apartment in New York city.  She left no suicide note – only a message saying she wanted to leave everything to her mother.

More telling was a personal essay Kryst wrote for Allure magazine (“A Pageant Queen Reflects on Turning 30,” 2021).  She says, “Each time I say, ‘I’m turning 30,’ I cringe a little.  Sometimes I can successfully mask this uncomfortable response with excitement; other times, my enthusiasm feels hollow, like bad acting. . . Society has never been kind to those growing old, especially women.”

Kryst was already feeling the sting of ageism.  After she made history winning the pageant, fans who thought she looked “too old” began to petition for the age limit to be lowered.  Kryst apparently internalized the criticism.  She writes, “A grinning, crinkly-eyed glance at my achievements thus far makes me giddy about laying the groundwork for more but turning 30 feels like a cold reminder that I’m running out of time to matter in society’s eyes – and it’s infuriating.”

Well-educated and socially conscious, Kryst recognized, at least intellectually, that “society’s eyes” are diverse and that the pageant and media spheres are small segments of a much larger world, but she had trouble separating herself emotionally from the ageism and lookism that surrounded her.

She also felt driven to “measure up” to high-achieving peers.  In the essay, she reflects on being “enamored by ’20 under 20’ and ’30 under 30’ lists that tied achievement to youth and called it success.”

Kryst ends the essay describing her need to develop a “new perspective” that involves “searching for joy and purpose on my own terms.”

It is sad that Kryst could not accept her aging self exactly as she was, imperfections and all.  It is a sad commentary that this truly exceptional woman did not feel valued and appreciated in the world.

Age Doesn’t Necessarily Make Things Better

We might argue that Kryst lacked the maturity and perspective that age can bring when evaluating one’s life.  But suicides happen more frequently around later milestone birthdays, too.

Japanese researchers who examined data on approximately one million suicides between 1974 and 2014 found that deaths occurred more frequently around specific milestone birthdays, particularly among men.  There were more suicides at 20 (the age of adulthood in Japan), 30, 40 and 60 (the age of retirement in Japan) for men and more suicides at 20 and 77 (one of the traditionally celebrated longevity birthdays) for women (“Higher Risk of Suicide on Milestone Birthdays. Evidence from Japan,” 2019).

Researchers in other countries have also found upticks in suicides among both men and women around birthdays marking adulthood, middle age, and later life.

Even cultural critics fall prey to age anxiety.  In 2003, feminist scholars were shocked to learn that well-known literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun, then 77, had committed suicide.  The New York Times described her as “one of the mothers – perhaps the mother – of academic feminism, laying the groundwork for women’s struggle over the past decades over what they called ‘patriarchy’” (“A Death of One’s Own,” 2003).

“Patriarchy” is a system in which men (those representing a privileged white male belief system) hold most of the power, and women (of all races and social classes) are largely excluded from it.  Heilbrun was a fierce defender of women’s lives, women’s power, and women’s independence.  She wrote a series of detective novels with a strong female protagonist using the pen name Amanda Cross (“a man to cross”).  Both Heilbrun and her character Kate Fansler were role models for women of all ages.

Heilbrun also held an endowed chair at Columbia University and was an accomplished scholar and author of many academic books.  She had no life-threatening illnesses and was not depressed.  But, in later years, she came to see her life as “borrowed time,” and she did not want to become old and “useless.”

In her book The Last Gift of Time, written in her 60s, Heilbrun talked about choosing to end one’s life when the rewards of living have diminished.  She viewed death as a welcome alternative to her “fear of being held captive in a long illness,” or living loo long past “the point.”  She believed it was “better to leave at the height of well-being rather than contemplate the inevitable decline and the burden one becomes upon others.”

One could argue that Heilbrun’s outlook was sensible and practical.  It was also ageist.  She assumed that age and vulnerability diminished a person’s value, and she would have nothing to offer in her later years.

Is this any different from Kryst’s belief that she had lived past her prime and saw no point in going on?

Another Way

I respect these women’s choices, but I disagree with their way of thinking.

Rather than judging our aging selves and assuming the worst, I advocate for self-acceptance, whatever comes.  Rather than ending things before we become a “burden,” I advocate for embracing our vulnerabilities and accepting help from others.

Other sources of meaning beyond culture and media can help us see things differently.

Alexander Leering Kern, Executive Director of the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service at Northeastern University in Boston, urges us to look past our individual lives and “remember the long view of history, the rhythms and cycles of nature, the invisible threads that connect us all.”  We can “find strength and solace and power in traditions, texts, rituals, practices, holy times and seasons” that connect us to something much greater than ourselves (“Caring for Self and Others in Times of Trouble,” 2020).

Every day we can remind ourselves that we are part of a larger, interconnected web:  by creating and sustaining a sense of community, helping those in need, showing up for one another, listening with compassion, and practicing empathy, kindness, and gratitude.

If Cheslie Kryst had asked me how to find that “new perspective” she was searching for,  I would have suggested she read philosopher Bertrand Russell’s, “How to Grow Old.”  His advice:  “Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”

In other words, after you learn to love and accept yourself,  go out into the world, focus on others, and forget about yourself.

Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen

Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.