DISCLAIMER: I am not judging any of my fellow parents or their kiddos for participating in this, but I do hope my perspective will challenge you to think carefully about whether and how you decide to do so. I know that there is no ill intent, and that this is something meant to be fun and harmless. However, I have real concerns about this as a disabled mom, and I am sharing information about myself and our family so others can better appreciate my perspective.I learn new things all the time as a parent. Recently, I started getting notifications from my son’s elementary school about an upcoming celebration I had never heard of before. Apparently, they make a really big deal out of celebrating the 100th day of school, particularly in the 2nd grade. The school newsletter said to be on the lookout for “100-year-old outfits.” Huh? Another mom kindly filled me in – they dress up like old people and do all sorts of activities with the number 100.
I thought it sounded like a strange tradition, but my son was so excited and it seemed fun and cute. Harmless, right? My son started talking about what he might wear and I explained to him that some older men wear suspenders (he didn’t know what they were). So I ordered him a set of suspenders, a bow tie, and a can of temporary gray hair dye. But I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that something just didn’t feel right about this. The next day, my son suggested that he could take one of my wheelchairs to school (I’m a triple amputee and use a power wheelchair) to be an old person for the 100th day celebration. That’s when it hit me.
I immediately bristled at the thought of non-disabled people using mobility aids as costume props. It hit me all at once why I had been feeling uncomfortable. There is a long history of disability simulations in schools and other places that the disability community has objected to as a form of cultural appropriation. Research in recent years has proven that simulations have the unintended effect of actually making non-disabled people experience increased pity and other negative emotions towards disabled people.
I had to explain to my son that I didn’t like the idea of non-disabled people using a wheelchair or a walker or a cane, because disabled people actually NEED to use those and they are an extension of our bodies. It just felt wrong (even though I knew it was not a simulation in the traditional sense). Then I got a reminder from my son’s teacher with pictures from the event last year. Teachers were using wheelchairs, walkers, and other assisted mobility devices. Kids were dressed in nightgown, robes and slippers, and walking hunched over leaning on canes. There were wigs, pearl necklaces, and spectacles.
I realized then this tradition was both ageist and ableist, and I knew I somehow had to address this with his school. I figured they would say that there is no intention to make fun of anyone, and I expected to be treated as an overly sensitive snowflake. I wrote a letter, excerpted below:
One concern is the use of mobility devices by non-disabled people. I would hate for the kids at [redacted] Elementary School to get the impression that mobility devices are props for dress up, toys to be played with, or only used by elderly people. My other concern is that this encourages stereotypical portrayals of elderly people and only reinforces negative perceptions about aging.
I wrote about my 102-year-old grandmother with whom my son is very close. We call her GG. She recently fell and was injured and is in rehab where we have had to advocate for her worth and deservingness to get full rehabilitative services. I told them that it breaks my heart to think that he will see his classmates and teachers poking fun at people like her. I told them that I work for the VA as a rehabilitation psychologist so I interface frequently with elderly veterans:
We were fortunate enough to have Mr. Richard Overton visit our VA clinic a couple of years ago. He lived to be 112 years old and was the oldest surviving veteran of World War II. When I think about what that generation faced, including the Great Depression, it strikes me as particularly important that we model preserving their dignity and showing them the respect they deserve.
There were many things that I wanted to say but couldn’t – due to practicalities like reasonable email length and depleted emotional energy. I didn‘t explain that ageism and ableism are intertwined. “Successful aging” in our society means the absence of significant physical or mental impairment — those who reach old age and death without such impairment are celebrated, while those who fail to achieve this ideal are devalued. Disability portrayed as an undesirable consequence of aging further stokes fear and prejudice. Ableism and ageism tell us that that old and disabled people cannot meaningfully contribute to society and are dependent burdens requiring constant care, attitudes that reflect our collective fear of vulnerability and loss. This results in the exclusion of elders from mainstream society, often to the point of institutionalization, typically in nursing homes.
Approximately 10% of older adults report experiencing abuse, including physical violence, emotional or verbal abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation, and neglect. This is likely a gross underestimate, given the serious risks of disclosure leading to low rates of reporting. The most common perpetrators? Family members. Elders struggle with rising housing and health care bills, inadequate nutrition, lack of access to transportation, diminished savings, and job loss. Far fewer healthcare dollars are spent on older disabled adults, and they receive less assistive technologies, reduced treatment options, worse rehabilitation care, and are more likely to be placed in nursing homes when compared to younger peers. Ageism does harm to older adults. Those who internalize these negative attitudes about growing old actually die sooner. Ageism causes cardiovascular stress and reduces self-worth. Pervasive ageism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy giving elders the message that their lives are nothing but social isolation, physical and cognitive decline, reduced physical activity, and financial burden.
I concluded the letter with:
I know the idea is about having fun, but it seems like it’s done at the expense of elderly individuals. I really want to encourage [redacted] Elementary School to seriously consider other ways that the one-hundredth day of school could be celebrated. One suggestion is that [redacted] Elementary School invite 100-year-old+ people to come and speak at the school and talk about what life was like when they were young compared to how it is now. Along the same lines, activities that might allow the kids to interact positively with elderly individuals might be a good way for them to learn to engage with older generations rather than to mock them. It is very important to me that our children are not exposed to harmful stereotypes that represent ableism and ageism at school.
The principal wrote back and pretended to care. Nothing would change. I let my son wear the suspenders and bow tie and pretend to be a kid from 100 years ago. I sent the hair dye back, We talked about what he would see and after he got home, we talked about how it made him feel. I saw the pictures – the walkers, the hunched backs, white wigs, and slow gaits. I felt sad. The kids were cute – they’re kids – but seeing it for what it was stripped away any appreciation or enjoyment. I love Halloween, and I know we can dress up without engaging in cultural appropriation and resorting to stereotypical tropes. I’m certain we can celebrate the 100th day of school without ableism or ageism.
Our elders are a gift. GG has lived nearly 103 years now. She doesn’t understand why she’s still here. She feels like a burden and expresses guilt that she is not “useful” any longer. After a recent visit, my son expressed sadness upon hearing these concerns from GG. He said, “mama, doesn’t GG know she’s valuable to me?” He’s right, of course. She brings so much joy to our family, and we consider all the time we have with her to be a blessing. Some societies and cultures treasure their elders. Why don’t we? To change will require effort from all generations. It begins with dispelling outdated concepts of elders as burdens, disproving stereotypes, and combating discrimination, abuse, and neglect. Where better to start than in our schools, and with our children?
Other resources you might find helpful regarding this issue: