Ageism is alive and well and often unconsciously practiced in the workplace, in health care, and in everyday life. It is a serious issue that should be treated the same as other forms of discrimination. But what is ageism, exactly? It is defined by the acceptance of stereotypes and myths, avoidance of contact, and even outright disdain or dislike for seniors and the elderly. Like other biases, ageism has serious negative impacts and often leads to discrimination in housing, employment, and services of many kinds.
As older people are living (and thriving) longer than ever, raising awareness of the issue and finding ways to counteract ageism and discrimination will become increasingly important—though by no means easy.
Examples of ageism
In our youth-oriented society, the largest marketing budgets for goods and services appeal to people under 50 years of age. Ironically, the consumers with the most disposable income are over the age of 50.
We are bombarded with ads for anti-aging products. Birthday cards equate aging with near-death. When we are forgetful, we call it a “senior moment.” We lie about our age, color our gray, and tell “harmless” jokes that demean and diminish the value and accomplishments of seniors. Terms like “sweetie” or “cutie pie” are condescending and infantilizing. I recall chastising a staff member in a nursing home for calling a man named Theodore “Teddy Bear.” What a wonderful world it would be if we could pay compliments like “She’s a good dancer…” or “He’s got a sharp mind…” without feeling the need to qualify it with “… for her/his age.”
Ageism in surprising places
Many years ago, I hosted a surprise 75th birthday party for my mother-in-law at a lovely restaurant. She was totally surprised. Shortly after everyone congratulated her, she pulled me aside and asked if I had shared which birthday it was. I replied, “Of course, it’s your 75th, and you should feel very proud.” Her response was terse, “Thanks a lot. I have been telling everyone I was only 73!”
That same year, I finally was able to convince my 80-year-old father to see a geriatric specialist (a physician whose practice addresses diseases and health care for seniors). As a care manager, I had referred many clients to this “forward-thinking” doctor. Imagine my shock when, as he was asking my father his medical history, the doctor addressed his questions to me! Rather than embarrass him, I simply moved my chair next to the doctor, forcing him to look forward at my dad when he spoke. By the way, at 80, my father was still performing real estate appraisals and playing 18 holes of golf when his neuropathy would allow it.
Accepting ageism and discrimination can be dangerous
Part of the very real danger of ageism is that the myths and stereotypes are frequently internalized by the older adults themselves. This can lead to poor mental and physical health. For example, if we believe that depression is a normal part of aging, we do not seek treatment. If we think pain is expected as we age, we dismiss it and do not share that information with physicians. Even the medical community can be ageist when an older person complains about pain and they answer dismissively, “What do you expect at 85?
Ways to avoid the pitfalls of ageism:
- Call it out when we see it in ourselves and others.
- Seek out older people for their knowledge and opinions, showing they are valued and respected.
- Promote independence and control over decision making—both big and small.
- Never speak to an older person as if they were a child.
- Find opportunities to engage in multi-generational activities, for example:
- Join a choral group
- Visit assisted living communities and nursing homes
- Become a pen pal with an older person
- Attend lectures and discussions about aging; make it interesting through games and role playing.
- Watch this AARP video entitled Millennials Show Us What “Old” Looks Like. It is a wonderful reminder that the best way to disrupt any stereotype is for unlike people to simply interact and know each other.