Ageism May Be Pervasive, But We Can Take Steps Towards Change

By Kirsten Jacobs, director dementia and wellness education, LeadingAge (guest post)

Two years ago the LeadingAge Board of Directors adopted a bold new vision, An America Freed from Ageism. With that, we declared our commitment to a growing international anti-ageism movement. Ageism is stereotyping and discrimination based on age. Anyone can experience ageism, but throughout the world, we live in such a youth-oriented culture that older adults are often the recipients of age-based discrimination.

There is a wide range of manifestations of ageism, both individual, like avoiding older adults, and institutional, like housing and employment practices. A couple specific examples in the U.S. that relate to our field include the lack of geriatric specialists or the fact that less than 2% of philanthropic dollars go to older adults and ageing-related organizations. (The Foundation Center, 2014).

While ageism is pervasive today, it wasn’t always this way. Some believe that with the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution, U.S. society started placing less value on the role of elders, who had traditionally been the keepers of stories in our families and communities. Furthermore, as more people make it into their 80s, 90s, and beyond, longevity just isn’t as unique as it once was. And families are now scattered across the globe, so young children often don’t enjoy regular exposure to elders.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ageism is pervasive across ethnic groups and the globe. The manifestations may vary, but regardless of geography, older adults are often seen as one homogenous group, which leads to stereotyping and discrimination. Yet, we know that older adults actually become more different from each other as they age.

We also know from research that ageism can have a negative impact on individual health and wellbeing. Becca Levy and colleagues at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut found that ageism negatively impacts cardiovascular health, recovery from illness and that individuals with negative self-perceptions of ageing live 7.5 years less than those with more positive self-perceptions of ageing. So, ageism does matter.

While the scope of the problem can be overwhelming, there are small steps we can all take in our daily lives to start making an impact. Ageism is so prevalent and normalized that it often goes unnoticed. Therefore, increasing awareness is the first step toward making positive change.

Ageism, in the form of pervasive negative attitudes about older persons, is widely shared among cultures around the world. There are signs of ageism concealed in our language, consumer products, and even in the media.  It shows up in the things we say with phrases like, “I’m having a senior moment,” or “She’s 70 years young.” There’s also an entire industry dedicated to combating the natural progression of ageing with “anti-ageing” products. So, start by noticing the words you and the people in your community are using. You might be surprised by all the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways ageism shows up in your daily life.

As ageing services professionals, we have a unique perspective and opportunity to make an impact in our professional lives as well. Consider the language you use within your organization. Raise awareness among staff, residents, and families by offering education (stay tuned, LeadingAge has some resources on the way!). Education should be community-wide. Often elders are guilty of ageism, too. After all, they’ve had the most time to soak up the constant barrage of negative messages about aging. And sometimes family care partners forget that while their older family members may need some additional assistance, they can continue to be vital members of their families and society.

Over the last 2 years, we’ve been working to raise awareness in the U.S. and around the world and we’ve learned that it’s important to strive toward a culture of ongoing learning. Be kind to yourselves as you make small steps toward combating ageism. We all slip up, but with intention, we can start changing the way our world thinks about ageing.

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