Aging, dementing, ageism and the presidency

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By Rev. Paul Graves

Despite what your perception might be of this commentary’s title, I’m not really writing about partisan politics! Sure, a bombshell of partisan politics exploded on February 9 when Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report on Joe Biden hit the news. Hur’s report was supposed to focus on whether charges related to Biden’s holding onto classified documents would be filed.

But the inclusion of serious allegations of the President’s cognitive (mental) health was the marquee takeaway that reporters drooled over. Hur said a jury wouldn’t likely convict him if the President were put on trial because he’s a “sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.” Why was that even included in Hur’s report? A political stab?

Perhaps. But I think his report was straight-out “Ageism.”

A cartoon wife says to her husband: “I’m going to vote for the honest and kind senile man, not the senile man who’s racist, greedy & self-serving.” She, too, fell into the ageism trap – the bias against, the discrimination against, persons based on their age.

The reactions on all sides of the Hur report—and subsequent criticisms of Biden and Trump’s advanced ages—are driven by politics. But I suggest they are deeper than opportunistic partisan politics. They smack of the widespread cultural bias called ageism.

Ageism affects young and old alike, but it’s much bigger news when it involves the two presumptive presidential candidates.

I’ve worked with older adults since my parish days and as a social worker in nursing homes. So, I have first-hand experience with older people, including myself.

Proverbs 20:29 (“The Message”) reminds us: “Youth may be admired for vigor, but gray hair gives prestige to old age.” My consulting ministry’s mantra for years has been: “Gray hair and wrinkles are not a fashion statement. They are a values statement.”

Ageism disrespects and distorts that human value. We often distort our aging, and we often distort other people’s aging. So let me be clear: “Aging” is not the same as “dementing.”

Normal aging can include slower mental processing, but routine memory, skills and knowledge often improve with age. Dementia, on the other hand, is not a normal outcome of aging. It’s caused by a disease process that affects the brain. But aging and dementia aren’t the same.

It’s easy to quickly point to verbal and mental “gaffes” when we see both Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Come on, folks! They’re both old.

The causes of either man’s verbal flubs are complex. Admittedly, while I choose not to dismiss either man because of ageism, their physical and cognitive health is an issue for me to some degree.

But when we see their public gaffes, we’d be wise not to listen to pundits and reporters looking for “gotchas” on one candidate or the other. We’d be wiser first to see how our personal age-related fear colors our perception of them.

My standard for choosing between them has far less to do with their age and more to do with their competency in how they conduct themselves as men and as former and current presidents. I observe how they live the values they say they have—like how they treat other people with respect and compassion.

I watch them deal with political leaders, regular “people on the street,” or perceived outsiders. Their actions reflect what they value as men and how they value other people.

Age is far less of an issue for me than character and competency. Where does age fit into your evaluation of this pivotal election year?


The Rev. Paul Graves is a retired elder member of the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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