We have a great deal of power, but we face a huge threat that collectively we must address!
Those of us who are fifty or over represent over one-third of the population in the United States. In some communities, the percentage of those fifty and over is much higher. When it comes to our influence at the polls, our portion of the pie is even greater.
Overall, we are healthier and living longer than any generation before us. We also control the majority of household wealth in the United States.
Collectively, we represent a very powerful demographic with a lot of potential influence. Our families need us, our communities need us, businesses need us, and educational institutions need us and our support. What many of us want in return is what all people want—a fair degree of respect.
We Face a Huge Threat and Collectively Must Address It
Even though older adults represent a huge block of influence, we are consistently demeaned and disregarded as a group and as older individuals as a result of age stereotyping and discrimination (ageism). Not only does this result in a loss of self-respect, but it also puts us at a greater risk of financial loss, health problems, and even a shorter lifespan.
The World Health Organization reports, “Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially “normalized” of any prejudice and is not widely countered – like racism or sexism. These attitudes lead to the marginalization of older people within our communities and have negative impacts on their health and well-being.” As reported in the Epoch Times, a review of 422 studies involving 45 countries and 7 million people, evidence was found in 96 percent of the studies that linked ageism to adverse health issues.
Adverse health effects associated with ageism have included decreased cognitive functioning, cardiovascular problems, stress, and depression. The annual healthcare costs in the United States directly associated with ageism is estimated at $63 billion a year. In addition to the medical toll, ageism is also associated with a shorter lifespan.
It is important for all of us to examine the current cultural attitude toward older adults and how it affects each of us. For the sake of our own health and well-being as well as the well-being of our entire culture, we can no longer ignore the impact of negative attitudes towards aging and older adults.
The good news is that the 50+ demographic and our overall accumulated household wealth give us a great deal of power to change attitudes—if we do so collectively. We can start by addressing demeaning advertising and marketing practices, address disrespectful communication, and by speaking out against disrespectful attitudes and communication towards older adults. We can insist on more respectful healthcare. Finally, we can stand together and fight ageist attitudes in the workplace.
Advertising, Marketing and the Demeaning of Older Adults
In spite of the resources we collectively have, only a small percentage (about 10-15 percent) of marketing dollars are spent on the largest generation over fifty. Clearly, this is not smart marketing when those of us over 50 hold the majority of the household wealth in the country.
Likely the biggest advertising dollars related to aging supports “anti-aging” products and services. Anti-aging advertising reinforces the cultural belief that aging is bad and must be avoided at any cost.
When advertisers target our demographic (as though we are all members of the same, homogenous group), we receive advertisements for assisted living facilities, adult diapers, hearing aids, and funeral services.
Further, advertisers often fail to understand that many of us who are older are fairly comfortable with technology. While we might not be digital natives, the majority of us have cell phones and approximately 82% of baby boomers (those born between 1946-1964) participate on at least one social media platform.
When my husband and I were ready to purchase a new air conditioner and furnace (for about $6K), the salesperson mentioned the possibility of a wi-fi controlled thermostat. Then he looked at us and said, “You two wouldn’t be interested in that.” Needless to say, we went with another company. And yes, we were pleased to get a system from another dealer that included a wi-fi-controlled thermostat.
What can we do to counter stereotypical marketing and advertising? As individuals, we can choose to speak out against stereotypical advertising and marketing. We can also write letters to business owners, and we can refuse to support organizations that promote demeaning messages. We can also participate in online reviews for some companies and services. When doing so, it is important to be specific about our concerns and to suggest more inclusive ways to communicate.
We are even more effective when we collectively take action against businesses and organizations that advertise or otherwise demean older adults through advertising, marketing, and customer interactions. For example, I will be meeting with a group of women in my area next month to discuss whether there are particular businesses that tend to treat older adults with disrespect. I suspect that one particular business –a grocery store–will be identified above all others. Then we will discuss collective action we can take to encourage positive changes as to how older adults are treated when doing business at the store. We may start a letter-writing campaign. If we don’t see results, we may boycott the store or stage a protest.
When it comes to companies that advertise products in ways that are disrespectful, we can again start letter-writing campaigns and by posting reviews online. We can also encourage others to join us in our efforts. Businesses need our money and our support. We can withdraw our support and let others know why we are no longer supporting certain businesses and organizations.
Disrespectful Public and Social Communication
As individuals and as a large segment of American culture, we are often demeaned and disregarded as a result of rampant ageism. Ageism refers to stereotyping or discriminating against people based on their age.
In 2014, NPR polled 2700 older adults to learn what they considered the most respectful or acceptable terms for those of us who are older. The term “older” adult was most popular. “Senior” was acceptable, but not when coupled with “citizen.” One of the most offensive terms was “elderly.” Yet “the elderly” is a term we often see in print and in the media.
Recently, a local news station interviewed someone who was advocating for support of a local school bond. The person being interviewed commented by saying the bond could pass if “the elderly didn’t hold onto their money so tightly.” This stereotypical “greedy geezer” didn’t communicate needed respect towards a segment of the population that will likely control the outcome of the bond measure.
The use of “Elderspeak” or language that infantizes older adults is also very disrespectful. Assuming that someone who no longer looks young therefore must be elderly and therefore frail, feeble, and failing can lead to the use of elderspeak. When someone addresses an older adult with simple language, endearing terms, a slower rate of speech, and louder volume, it can feel quite condescending. Sometimes such condescending treatment will be accompanied by physical touching like we are five-year-old children.
Interestingly, when I speak to groups about ageism, it is usually other women who quickly recognize elderspeak and share their own examples. Yet sometimes men will tell me that they don’t mind being called “sweetie” or having a younger woman hug them. Perhaps more women are picking up all the associated nonverbal cues that accompany condescending communication. It is also quite possible that women experience more ageist comments because our culture tends to value females more for their appearance than males; once our looks start fading, we are treated with less respect.
Recently, I was paying for my groceries when the clerk smiled at me as she handed me my groceries and said, “There you go, honey.” I raised my eyebrows and started to say something when the person behind me, an older man, asked the clerk a question. As I was gathering my bags, I heard this same grocery associate refer to the man as “Sir.” Her tone, her language, and her overall communication with the older man were more respectful.
What can we do to counter disrespectful communication? First, we have to recognize elderspeak when we see it. Individually, we can counter these comments by asking others to call us by name or address us in some other way. I usually do this while trying not to put the other person on the defensive. I also write letters, publish articles, and discuss elderspeak with people in my community. Recently, I met with the school superintendent and discussed how “elderspeak” in our community wasn’t helping him and the district get the support they needed from older community members for a proposed school bond.
Individual efforts can only go so far. We’ve got to collectively address disrespectful communication. We can start by discussing how to respond when we are on the receiving end of elderspeak. We then need to develop community-based strategies and tactics to address ageist communication. Tactics might include community education forums and partnering with local media to spread the word about ageist communication. We can also partner with local community colleges and organizations to offer workshops on ageism. In addition, we can keep writing letters and articles about the harm ageist communication does.
Medical Bias Toward Older Adults
Age discrimination towards older patients is relatively common within the medical community. As a result, older patients may fail to get the tests or treatment they need.
A very healthy older woman I know went saw her doctor last year because she hadn’t felt well for a few weeks and had no energy. He basically told her that she felt bad because she was old. When she expressed dismay, the doctor’s nurse put her arms around her and talked to her as though she was a young child needing comfort. Fortunately, the woman refused to accept her doctor’s biased diagnosis. Instead, she found another doctor who immediately asked her about the medications she was taking and then made appropriate changes—changes that completely resolved the problem.
After reading Elderhood (a geriatrician’s powerful account of how prevalent ageist attitudes are among some doctors), I sent the author, Dr. Louise Aronson, a message and told her about the woman I knew. She responded back and said that it happens far too often.
What can we do when we encounter medical bias based on age? Like the older woman whose concerns were dismissed because of age-bias, we can also choose to get a second opinion. However, because doctors are often in short supply—especially in rural areas, we may want to stay with a particular doctor but don’t want our concerns to be dismissed. In an article for Kaiser Health News, Dr. Aronson advises that we don’t put our doctors on the defensive. Rather, we can gently communicate our concerns about perceived age bias.
In my rural community, we have an informal network of information about doctors and medical services that most of us either trust or distrust. Several people in my community have had some very bad experiences with one medical facility in particular. As a result, whenever possible, older members of my community choose to drive an extra 40 miles to another city for nonemergency treatment.
Reading online reviews and posting reviews (including positive ones) might also be a useful way to help each other get the best possible medical care.
Ageist Attitudes and Behaviors in the Workplace
A 2018 report by ProPublica revealed that more than half of older adult workers are pushed out of their jobs before they plan to retire. The result of unexpected job loss has cost many older workers irreversible financial damage. Numerous other studies support these findings and also reveal that women are even more likely than men to experience age discrimination during the hiring process.
Even when older workers are able to hold onto their positions, they may find that their opinions are no longer sought, they are not included in conversations and may be ignored in meetings. These subtle ageist behaviors can create a great deal of stress and result in health-related problems.
What can we do to address age discrimination in the workplace? It can be difficult to prove age-based discriminatory treatment in the workplace—especially if we are the ones experiencing it. Collectively, however, we can support all workers by calling out ageist behaviors when we see it. If still working, we can make extra efforts to include all workers and solicit everyone’s opinions. Ideally, employees can push for training on ageism in the workplace. According to one report, only about eight percent of global CEOs who were surveyed included age diversity as part of their training.
As consumers, we can also communicate that we like working with people in businesses who look like us. Further, we can encourage businesses to feature older workers and customers on their websites. We must let businesses know that we do not approve of ageist attitudes -even if it doesn’t directly affect those of us no longer in the workplace.
Ageism is not acceptable anyplace or at any time. It hurts all of us. It will continue to dominate our culture and destroy lives until we use our collective power to say “Enough is enough!”