Kelly Papa

Last year around this time, I received the weekly email from my son’s amazing kindergarten teacher. The usual weekly updates included how the school would celebrate the 100th day of school.

One update was asking the students to dress like they were 100 years old on the 100th day of school for a parade. The problem is that, when I look at the photos online of these cute kids dressing like they are “old,” I see symbols equating being 100 years old with stereotypes of frailty, poor fashion sense, loss and being cranky or feeble.

I was so upset by ageism entering into my child’s life. I stopped reading the email closed the computer and went shopping for Super Bowl party supplies. But to my horror, as I walked into the local party supply store, while I could see the football adorned plates and balloons off to the left, the wall that was at the front of the store had all the costume accessories you would need to celebrate the 100th day of school. Cans of white hair spray, curlers, glasses, gray frizzy wigs, canes, suspenders and knee-highs. If you were not into creating your own costume you could get a “costume in a bag” that had all the accessories you would need to dress your sweet child in. The bagged costume names included “cranky old lady” and “old geezer.”

To me older adults are to be respected and cherished.  

I checked in with my dear friend Wendy at LeadingAge, and sharing my feelings on this. She reminded me that there is a lot of work to be done in abolishing ageism. She asked me about my relationship with this teacher, and I reflected on how much I respect and enjoy this teacher. We discussed that I simply reach out to her, with an email sharing my perspective on how I believe this event of dressing a child as they are 100 years old was ageist.

I am blessed to have grown up in a family with many older adults who cared for me, told me their stories, taught me about life and passed on their traditions. Grandparents and great aunts and uncles who made me laugh out loud, while teaching me life skills which I still draw from today. They made me feel loved, believed in and connected, all feelings and values I want to pass onto my children.

I know there are some who feel like this is just a silly experience. But the symbolic interaction will teach these 5- and 6-year-olds that being 100 years old is to be mocked and useless. To my joy the teacher responded to my email immediately saying we needed to talk. She had never looked at this event as ageist and can see how it could be insensitive.  

In my mind and heart, it really isn’t the dressing up that concerns me; it is message we are sending with it. As a mother, I know kids are curious about things like hearing aides, glasses, canes and wheelchairs. There’s no problem to let them try them out and remove the mystery.  But if we add humor that mocks the person wearing the hearing aids, i.e. “Speak up, Sonny I can’t hear ya…” or pretend to be confused in ways that appear funny, then we have just stereotyped and been extremely insensitive to the challenges that people are living with.

Together the teacher and I came up with the plan that I would visit the class the day after the dress up day to talk with the students about the people I know that are 100 years old. When the day came for me to visit the class, I shared that it was my birthday and I was turning 43 years old. I shared that I liked ice cream, playing outside and reading. Then I asked them; do you like ice cream, playing outside and reading? Oh yes! Hands shot up. I shared that I heard they dressed like they were 100 years old yesterday and did they think that people who were 100 liked ice cream, playing outside and reading too?  The sweet girl in the front row chimed in with a giggle and said, “No one lives to 100 years old.” When I shared that I knew 15 people personally who were over 100, their jaws dropped eyes got big and they were very curious.

I promised them I would set up a visit for them with a person who is 100.  

And this year, my heart exploded when I heard from the teacher. She said this year, on the 100th Day of School Parade, the students would be dressed as kindergarten students and wearing or carrying an 100 item collection. They’ll also read books and talk about ways to highlight the wisdom and expertise of people as they age. It’s hard to ask for more than that!

Kelly Papa, MSN, RN, is the Masonicare Corporate Director of Learning, where she is responsible for developing their corporate university, educational learning opportunities and ensuring the organization is meeting the educational needs of employees throughout its continuum.