When I was still teaching speech communication at a community college, I would occasionally hear ageist remarks from my students that I had to address. One time a student proposed a persuasive speech topic about why people over sixty should be required to get retested every year for their driver’s licenses. Some of the other students in the class enthusiastically supported the topic and made comments like one who said, “I see those old geezers on the road sometimes and they go so slow and have to lean over their steering wheels just to see.” Then this student pantomimed his impression of an old, decrepit driver.
Though a bit taken back, I asked the student what evidence he had to back up the assumption that people at sixty needed to be retested for their driver’s license each year. I also asked him if there were also twenty or thirty-year-old drivers who should be retested. I continued this line of questioning, challenging the assumptions this student made until others in the class took over. We ended up having a rich discussion on stereotyping. I guess you’d call it a teachable moment.
The Problem with Ageism
Stereotypical views on aging can be detrimental to all of us if we don’t address them. An article on the website for Senior Planning Services of Greater Santa Barbara County in California summarizes the negative impact of ageism; this includes stress, depression, the potential for increased heart disease, brain changes, and even shorter lifespans. The article includes a reference to one particular study that concluded 70 percent of older Americans claim “they have been insulted or mistreated because of their age.”
Seven Ways We Can Stand Up to Ageism
Each of us can create teachable moments and push back against unhealthy, ageist attitudes. Here are seven ways each of us can use our voice to take a stand against ageism.
- We can challenge other people’s assumptions by using questions such as “Why do you believe this? Or, “Is there evidence that might contradict this belief?”
- As individuals, we can live a life that contradicts stereotypes about aging such as staying healthy, keeping up with technology, continuing to learn, etc.
- Connecting with younger people on projects and one-on-one can be helpful in breaking down age-stereotypes. We can listen to younger people and respect some of their perspectives while also offering our own insights and experiences.
- When we are treated with respect when we are visiting stores or businesses, we can offer positive feedback. Sometimes I will even write letters to managers and let them know how much I appreciated respectful treatment as an elder person.
- We can personally talk about aging in positive terms when interacting with others (e.g., “Once I entered my sixties, I discovered what freedom really meant!”)
- We can practice the bystander rule: When we hear others making ageist comments, we can appropriately let them know that what was said sounded ageist. For example, we can say things like, “That sounded ageist. Knowing you, I don’t think that was your intention. What were you really trying to say?”
- When someone treats us with disrespect, it is generally most appropriate to let the person know that we feel disrespected and why. I usually try to do this firmly but also in a nonconfrontational way. When someone calls me “Sweetie” and uses a condescending tone with me, I don’t hesitate to tell that individual that I am uncomfortable with the communication because it makes me feel disrespected. Usually, I get an apology and the exchange ends up on a positive note.
Until each of us are willing to take a stand against ageism, the negative impact of this outdated stereotypical view of older people will prevail. It is imperative that each of us takes action and starts speaking up.