An aging world fighting ageism.

A river!
A deep cold river. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Splash splosh! Splash splosh! Splash splosh!

From the children’s book by M. Rosen, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt!”

Not one person on the planet can get around it – the aging process. We all know we have to go through it. Every single one of us. So it makes little sense that older adults experience age discrimination, but it is quite common around the globe.

Let’s take a moment to define ageism. Ageism is “the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age.” [1]

Unfortunately, ageism is not specific to one culture or another. Age-related stereotypes and discrimination are widespread. Even cultures, such as in Asia, that are considered to have more positive views of older adults, have demonstrated degrees of ageism similar to Western cultures. [2]

Ageism can surface in a variety of ways. It often begins with the language we use. In everyday conversations and even in advertisements, one may hear comments about how older people don’t understand technology or even jokes about loss of hearing.

The term “elderly” is problematic. Firstly, it implies a homogenous group–which is naturally not the case. How many of us know people that by their age may be considered elderly but are very active both mentally and physically? Secondly, experts suggest that terms such as elderly suggest a binary young/old concept that contributes to stereotypes; specifically, this promotes generalizations that assume vulnerability and dependence instead of resilience and independence. [3]

Ageism can spread through governmental policies. A study conducted by the Human Rights Commission found that older adults experience discrimination within the healthcare system, within government policy and in getting access to services in culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia. [4]

Ageism also plays out in ways that can directly impact a person’s life and livelihood. There have been reports of people over the age of 50 having difficulty in finding employment because of their age. Their experience as an elder is not regarded as beneficial, but as a hindrance, to the team or organization.

Furthermore, stereotypes may influence a person’s behavior and even their health. Studies have shown that cultural stereotypes about older people in many European countries are associated with people living less active lifestyles as they age, [5] while positive attitudes toward older adults appears to boost their mental health. [6] According to the World Health Organization, older people who think they are a burden to others not only view their lives as less valuable, but also puts them at heightened risk of depression and social isolation. [7]

One of the reasons ageism is so ingrained in our cultures is that it represents a deep-seated fear of something we are all trying to avoid, at all costs. Look no further than the massive budgets spent by companies targeting adults fighting tooth and nail to avoid their own aging. Ah, the never-ending search for the fountain of youth.

Flipping the Script on Ageism

Fighting ageism requires changing behaviors, creating new perspectives and fostering respect for all generations. Outdated beliefs that older people are a burden must be counteracted with real images and messages of senior role models, living productive and valuable lives. According to the World Health Organizations, actions that can be taken include: [1]

• communication campaigns to increase understanding of aging in the media, general public, policy-makers, employers and service providers;
• legislation against age-based discrimination; and
• ensuring that a balanced view of aging is presented in the media.

Most importantly, as a world community, we must realize that our efforts can contribute to a more positive outlook which can help our older citizens lead long, happy and productive lives. In fact, research has found that older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging. [7]

We are the answer to the global fight against ageism. We need to check our own biases as we may all be guilty of reinforcing stereotypes and attitudes about seniors.

1. Ageing: Ageism
2. Age-Related Stereotypes: A Comparison of American and Chinese Cultures
3. The ugly truth about ageism: it’s a prejudice targeting our future selves
4. Ageism in culturally diverse communities
5. Cultural aging stereotypes in European Countries: Are they a risk to Active Aging?
6. Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging
7. Discrimination and negative attitudes about ageing are bad for your health. World Health Organization. 29 September 2016.