I just got back from five weeks in Mexico, and I spent most of it hanging out with people more than twice my age (I’m 28).
My friends and I road-tripped across the country in a 1977 Volkswagen Kombi from Mexico City to Sonora, went snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez, and played beach volleyball under the relentless June sun.
San Carlos, where I spent the majority of my trip, is a small ex-pat community off the east coast of the Gulf of California. It is an extension of the port city of Guaymas, and it’s known for its shallow bays and stunning sunsets. It was built on dusty, old ranch land and has been the recipient of many public and private attempts to beautify and refine the infrastructure over the years.
Nothing ever really stuck, and the occasional PR and development pushes have created a city where you have rundown condos that offer shade to more modest Mexican homes, gringo bars next to family-run taco stands, and a large community of American and Canadian retirees, most of whom are in their 70s or older.
While I did play with and meet many local Mexican musicians (the music scene had surprising depth), the majority of people I met were significantly older than me, and those relationships surprised and changed me.
You may be harboring ageism and not realize it
I’ve spent almost the entirety of 20s away from people older than 50. Growing up in the conservative bastion of East Tennessee, I associated Boomers with my radical Trumpist father or at least more mild forms of rigid Christianity, and the only “old person” I interacted with on a regular basis was my last surviving grandmother, who, while still an incredible woman, has lost some of her mental faculties and doesn’t like to talk on the phone for more than 5 minutes.
The result? A previously unrecognized, default assumption that I can’t connect with people significantly older than me. Or perhaps more honestly, that it isn’t worth the effort. There just isn’t enough in common. Either I’ll hear them make a joke that makes me feel uncomfortable, or we’ll never find topics or ways to genuinely connect.
That assumption is wildly false, and San Carlos made me realize that I, and likely many other people like me, may be missing out on the chance to develop deep friendships and communities with people from previous generations.
The issue is the label
Categories, stereotypes, labels — these are all constructs created by other humans and passed down to us or by our own minds’ attempt to organize the world to save itself from expending energy.
Even terms like elderly are problematic.
“(elderly) implies a homogenous group, when nothing could be further from the case. I prefer the terms ‘olders’ and ‘youngers’ which are value neutral and emphasise that age is a spectrum.” — Ashton Applewhite (anti-ageism activist)
Applewhite also says that the term elderly incorrectly implies value or authority, and that we must give up on the binary young vs. old view of the world. We all know that wisdom isn’t dripped at regular intervals along the timeline of our lives — it’s born out of experiences, failures, and the desire to learn. Sure, older people have had more time, but that is a reductionist's take.
They are who they are.
It’s obvious, but the best way to connect with older people is just to see them for who they are — not through labels that yield preconceptions. To look at them non-teleologically. They are just another human at a particular moment in their story. We have the choice to see past fragility and accept them as they are.
The first night I met Millie, an 82-year-old ex real-estate agent from L.A. who had been living in Mexico for more than thirty years, she asked if I wanted to see her mouse tattoo.
I hesitantly replied yes, and she proceeded to use her cane to stand up, turn around, and start pulling down the back of her waistband.
Feeling sheepish and not knowing what to do, I stared, and she asked, do you see it? No, I said, not knowing how to react. Do you see it now? No, Millie, I don’t. Now? No, Millie! I don’t see your mouse tattoo.
“Oh,” she said, with a touch of sad gravitas.
“I guess my p*ssy ate it.”
In one instant, my biases shattered.
Americans are returning to multi-generational living
Multigenerational living nearly quadrupled in the past decade[*], and with the pandemic and looming debt crises, this will likely rise. And while that is mostly a forced result of systemic issues, there are positive consequences to returning to an older style of living.
My parents had me late, and my dad’s mom and my mother’s father both died before I was born. I adored my step-grandparents, but both of them passed away before I crossed the mental gap. When I was 24 and finally wanted to develop a relationship with my grandfather despite living in different cities, he passed as well.
And finally, just as I started prioritizing my grandmother, she began to lose her ability to connect.
If I had developed genuine friendships with my grandparents, maybe I wouldn’t be writing about ageism… but either way I know now what needs to change.
Challenge yourself to move beyond your comfort zone
If you also tend to write off older adults, I encourage you to catch your conditioning and reconsider your habits.
Next time you have the opportunity to connect with someone older, lean into it. Connect with them on your terms — just like you would with anyone else. It may be weird at times, and there may be miscommunications — but that’s the case for anyone.
And beyond that push could be friendship, wisdom, joy, and the chance to be a part of their story, and them a part of yours.