The World Health Organization indicates that ageism—or stereotyping and discrimination based on age—is the most socially acceptable form of prejudice on the planet. Because ageism does or will affect all of us, it is important that we recognize it and know how to deal with it.
Ageism isn’t a Laughing Matter.
I recently spoke to a local civic group about ageism and shared a story that many were quickly able to recognize as stereotyping based on age. My story was about an experience I had when I was in my early forties. I was a graduate research assistant at Portland State University. One morning after arriving on campus, I needed to make a phone call. At the time, there were plenty of public phones mounted on walls with phone books hanging below (this was before most of us started using cell phones). I looked up the name of the person I needed to call, but I couldn’t quite make out the number. I saw a young man walking by and asked him to help me. He smiled sweetly and said, “Sure.” Then he very loudly and slowly read the number: 6-6-5-2-4-3-2.
Clearly, the young man not only thought I couldn’t see, but he must have assumed I couldn’t hear or mentally process information very quickly either. At the time, I thought such a reaction was funny. However, when I entered my fifties, this stereotypical treatment became more common, and it was no longer funny.
I found out how challenging it was—especially as a woman—to find a meaningful new position after I had reached my fiftieth birthday. Some of the people who interviewed me were no older than my own children. I could see by looking at their faces that they had no intention of hiring someone who was as old as their mother. I did finally get the job I really wanted, but only after I met with a hiring committee comprised of people my own age.
Ageism in the Workplace is Common
Ageism is common in hiring and in the workplace. While older workers are supposed to have some protection, that doesn’t mean they don’t get pushed out of their positions. For example, an older worker may suddenly start receiving poor performance reviews or find that they are excluded from opportunities or even from casual conversations at work. It can and does happen. According to a 2018 AARP-funded survey, two-thirds of workers 45 and older reported they had either witnessed or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
Ageism is Reinforced through Language and Communication
The term ‘elderly’ is commonly used to describe people who are 65 and older and sometimes even as young as sixty. Writers, journalists, and others will refer to the ‘elderly’ population as though we are a homogenous group. When used in the medical community, Dr. J. H. Panah argues that the term ‘elderly’ is outdated, encourages stereotypes, and is potentially harmful to people.
Other terms that have been used in public discourse have included ‘greedy geezers’ and ‘drains on society’ –especially when talking about Social Security and Medicare. The way media and commentators frame aging is often negative.
Anti-aging advertisers are especially guilty of reinforcing negative views of aging. The term ‘anti’ means opposed to or against. The phrase ‘anti-aging’ means against aging. The anti-aging industry’s global worth is currently valued at several billion dollars and is expected to experience significant growth over the next few years. When I did a Google search just on the term ‘anti-aging,’ I got 367,000,000 hits in less than one second; that is telling.
The use of ‘elderspeak’ is another way ageism is reinforced. The term, ‘elderspeak’ refers to communication behaviors that treat older people as though they were children. When elderspeak is used, the tone of voice may be exaggerated, the rate of speech is often slower, sentences are less complex and shorter, and the volume of communication is louder. Sometimes younger people also feel freer to hug or touch older people as they would a young child and use “we” language inappropriately such as “Do we want something to eat?” This type of communication behavior suggests that the older person on the receiving-end is less than competent.
Ageism Is Harmful
Numerous studies have reported that older people often feel invisible as a result of stereotyping and discrimination based on age. When you become ‘invisible” other people talk over you as though you are not in the room. You might be ignored when you are shopping. If you are still in the workplace, your contributions might be minimized. When people feel invisible, it is easy to start questioning whether you matter at all.
When negative stereotypes about aging are internalized, it can be detrimental to health and wellbeing. It can also be expensive. A study reported in the November 2018 Gerontologist projected that the cost of health-related effects of ageism could be costing up to $63 billion dollars per year.
Ageism could also affect medical care that older adults receive. I knew a very active woman in her late seventies who suddenly began experiencing pain all over her body. When she went to her doctor, the response was, “What do you expect at your age?” Then the woman went to another doctor who asked about the medications she was taking. Once her medications were reviewed and modified, the pain disappeared. I shared this information with a geriatrician who responded by saying, “Sadly, it is very common.”
We Have the Power
Ageism is a prevalent issue that has some serious consequences. Yet we all have the power to help change the narrative about aging. We can start by educating ourselves about ageism. One book that is getting a lot of attention right now is Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. If you want to understand ageism better, this well-researched book will certainly be eye-opening.
When we recognize ageist policies, behaviors, language, or communication, we can call it what it is. If we read an article or post that refers to older people in a derogatory way, we can leave comments online.
We can also honor contributions people of all ages are making in our communities. Many of the volunteers in my community are retired. The work some of these volunteers do is often unrecognized.
Eventually, ageism will affect all of us. We all need to be involved in creating a better future for everyone.