What is Ageism and 5 Ways to Stop It

Sally Abrahms

Ageism is all around us. You may or may not realize that negative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors toward older people are alive and well. These feelings and actions can come from a child, an adolescent, a young adult, or a baby boomer. The ageist person may even be an older adult. For example, in many adult communities or facilities providing various levels of care, the more independent residents often don’t want the more infirm residents to eat in the same dining room.

U.S. Culture and Aging

Some cultures revere aging. Ours does not. “In our society, there is this endless drumbeat of youth. We need to challenge the underlying message that age decreases your value,” says Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and a blog called Yo, Is This Ageist? You’ve heard the stereotypes: Older people are crabby, slow learners, set in their ways, terrible with technology, forgetful (“senior moments”), feeble, and have dementia. Talk about sweeping generalizations! Consider the store clerk who speaks very loudly to an older shopper who hears perfectly well, or calls them “young lady” or “young man,” thinking they will be thrilled. Even some healthcare professionals fail to look at their patient during a visit, focusing instead on the patient’s adult child . Our culture doesn’t just stigmatize older adults, experts say. It often assumes everyone over age 60 is the same from their level of physical and mental health, to their degrees of social and technological engagement. “Basing beliefs and decisions on someone’s numeric age is ludicrous,” says Jan Hively, 86, a national expert on aging who received her Ph.D. when she was 67. “The older you get, the more variation there is.”

Health Impacts of Ageism

Ageism has real consequences. At the Yale School of Medicine, epidemiologist Becca Levy found that older adults who view aging negatively live 7.5 years less than those with a positive attitude. According to the World Health Organization, being the object of ageism can increase depression. On the other hand, another study showed that exposing older adults to subliminal positive messages about aging frequently helped their mobility and balance. If you convey the idea that a person is incapable of doing a task, it may come to fruition (the “self-fulfilling prophesy” theory). Older adults can begin to doubt their own abilities — if someone says it, it must be true. “We’re not helping them,” says Hively, who has seen it firsthand. “We need to see their potential and encourage people as they grow older to be as independent as they can.”

Why Ageism?

People don’t intentionally decide that they are going to be ageist; in many cases, it’s unlikely they realize that they are. But it’s an attitude that has been passed down through the generations.

U.S. advertising has also fueled the fire: Youth is praised. Older adults, especially those who aren’t physically vital, are mostly ignored. When an older person is shown on TV or in print, often they are either touting anti-aging products or tend to be physically vibrant, ultra-active boomers who climb mountains and run marathons, thanks to medication. “Ageism is getting worse at the same time as awareness of it grows,” says Margaret Morganroth Gullette, author of Ending Ageism or How Not to Shoot Old People. Why is there so much negativity? “Some people (i.e., boomers) don’t want to have much to do with older people because they dread their own future and don’t want to be reminded about it. So that is a big hurdle,” Gullette says.

Curbing Ageism

Medicine is improving, and life expectancy is increasing. Technology is allowing older adults to stay more independent and engaged. The potential period to be productive after retirement (maybe a second or even a third career?) has been extended a good 20 years or more. Meanwhile, baby boomers are aging and demanding different (better) ways of “doing” old. As there is more intergenerational interaction — whether in formal or informal programs, cohousing, or other intentional communities — children, parents, and others will better realize the contributions of elders. At the same time, older people will gain a greater sense of purpose and self.

At any rate, we’d better get used to older people — and to ourselves getting older. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, by 2030, “more than 20% of U.S. residents are projected to be aged 65 and over, compared with 13% in 2010 and 9.8% in 1970.” Activists are making ageism a hot issue. Some examples:

The #endageism hashtag is popular on Twitter.

The Positive Aging Movement, which believes that productivity, growth, and creativity are possible throughout the life span, holds international conferences with hundreds of attendees.

There’s an increasing proliferation of books, websites blogs, articles, and speeches on the topic of aging well.

Acting on Ageism

Ageism won’t go away by itself. Here are five ways to combat it:

1. Recognize it. To create awareness requires understanding that there is a problem. In other words, you can’t change something you don’t know needs changing, including yourself.

2. Speak up! If you hear something ageist, consider pointing it out. Rather than make someone defensive, you can calmly tell them you know they didn’t realize what they were saying.

3. Ask yourself, “Would I like it?” Treat older people with the respect you will want. Think about whether you are being patronizing or talking to them like children (called “elderspeak“). And don’t be that fully clothed health aide who gives a nursing home resident the “we” treatment, as in, “We are going to get dressed now.”

4. Be inclusive. Promote intergenerational experiences. Yarmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, has a unique intergenerational model UN program that pairs an elder with a high school student to learn about a pressing global issue, such as water conservation.

5. Give yourself a break. If you’re thinking that some behavior you thought was respectful is really ageist, now you’re enlightened. And you can make the choice to behave differently in the future.

I have an “Old People Are Cool” sticker I was given at a conference. Here’s hoping more people will think aging is cool.

A New Kind of Intergenerational Living

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