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Taking Aim at Ageism

December 1, 2010

Since 1964, Sheila Solomon Klass has written 19 books—a wide-ranging mix of fiction and non-fiction reflecting creativity, literary craftsmanship and intellectual curiosity.  But she has never written with greater conviction—or anger—than in “Aging and the Inaccessible City,” an article recently published in the magazine Health Affairs.

“I’m an 82-year-old widow, which makes me a member of New York City’s fastest-growing demographic group: elderly women who live alone,” wrote Klass, a professor emerita in BMCC’s English Department who teaches creative writing. She has been on the faculty for more than 40 years. “I insist on continuing to be a vital part of local life, but I fret that New York City is more and more for the young and sighted. We’re awash in growing ageism, and I find it difficult to swim against that tide.”

Making the city more accessible

In the article, Klass, whose vision is impaired by glaucoma and macular degeneration, inveighs against the illegibility—or absence—of house and building numbers, hard-to-access subways, and other urban fixtures that place an unfair burden on people with disabilities.

“Even though our economy is troubled, I’m bothered that there is so much money for so many things yet the city can’t seem to meet minimal standards for safety and accessibility in the subway system or keep the streets in good repair,” she says.  But mostly she is angered by the condescension and disdain with which many people view the elderly.

“I’m troubled by the ageism I see—by the fact that so many people seem to feel that when you get old, you need to be put somewhere, far from the city in a safe, clean environment,” Klass says. “When I needed some help with my computer, the young man who came to repair it refused to discuss the problem with me. He was absolutely uninterested in explaining to an old person, who he probably thought shouldn’t have been using a computer in the first place.”  Elaborating on the experience in her article, she wrote, “I get furious when people write me off. I’m not shy in noting aloud, ‘Old is not dead.’ Just to remind folks.”

Klass’s creative writing students do not need reminding.  “They are remarkably forbearing and understand that if I don’t hear them the first time, they need to repeat—and that it may take me a few weeks to recognize them outside class.”

Hope for the future

Her anger aside, Klass remains optimistic. “I think about my students, many of whom have never tried before to write fiction,” she wrote.  “Sometimes they’re awkward with words or with the English language. But their courage and ingenuity, as well as their humor, are mind-boggling.”

Klass also has generous thoughts for her fellow “old olds,” including close friends who are still contributing to society and adding value despite the fact that “we don’t see so well…and can’t walk so quickly.” 

But to put their skills and knowledge to use, “we need urban planners and urban policies that take us into account,” she added. “It’s imperative that I use my skills as a teacher, a writer, and a citizen to help shape this and other cities into comfortable environments for those who need a little extra help. I’m still waiting for the candidates and policy makers who look past the clichés and barriers of ageism and see the white-haired lady on the subway. I want them to recognize her, and to want her to be part of the city.”

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  • Writing in the magazine Health Affairs, Professor Emerita Sheila Klass argues that cities should be more hospitable to aging residents
  • Takes issue with those who set low expectations for “old olds”
  • Demands that policymakers heighten their emphasis on accessibility

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