Only the more astute of us would notice ageism when we’re younger. But as we age, it seems to become more and more observable in nature. But what exactly is it and more importantly, what can we do about it (at any age)?
What is Ageism?
The National Center for Biotechnology Information states, “Ageism is defined as stereotypes, prejudice, or discrimination against (but also in favour of) people because of their chronological age. Although the practice of ageism and ageist policies can be directed towards people of any age, most research in this area, to date, has addressed the ageism phenomenon in relation to older adults.”
While we see much verbiage about the guidelines regarding discrimination in many other classifying categories, we often do not see this in reference to age. Also found on the NCBI website: “In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emphasizing the fact that all individuals have the same rights: “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. (Article 2). Yet, seven decades later, age is still not an explicit part of a U.N. declaration (Mégret 2011).”
But what does this all mean for the regular person? It means that it could easily happen that a person of older years is discriminated against in a number of ways. We see it in the job market for people as young as 40 and over. We also see it in the slightest of comments, ones that are even meant to be compliments, “You look great! You don’t look your age at all!”. The discrimination lies in everything in between.
Who Does it Affect?
Across many western cultures, there is a push to idolize youth, beauty and strength. The crazy thing that we as older adults often even buy into it! There are cultures in the world that revere the elders of their communities and we have a lot to learn from them.
Ageism will end up affecting everyone, if we don’t work to change the current stereotypes of what it means to be older, what we have to offer and our place of value in our society. Since we all get older, we will all eventually fall victim to the age discrimination that many of us don’t see or experience yet.
From Why Survive? Growing Old in America (Butler 1975), “Ageism can be seen as a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender. Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills… Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.”
Outside of the psychological harm that it does to a direct recipient, what are some of the other consequences of ageism?
Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health have recently done a large and interesting study (which you can read about fully here). “The…study is the first systematic review of ageism that simultaneously considered structural-level ageism, such as denied access to health care, and individual-level ageism, such as the power of stress-inducing negative age stereotypes assimilated from culture to affect the health of older persons.
The Yale team found evidence that ageism led to worse outcomes in a number of mental health conditions, including depression, and a number of physical health conditions, including shorter life expectancy. Ten studies showed that when older persons assimilate negative age stereotypes from the culture, they have a shorter life expectancy. This survival finding, which was originally identified by Levy in previous research, was later found by the studies of others in multiple countries, including Australia, Germany, and China.
In the current study, Levy and her team found that ageism adversely affected whether or not older patients received medical treatment and, if they received the treatment, the duration, frequency, and appropriateness of the treatment provided. Evidence of denied access to health care treatments was found in 85% of all relevant studies. In 92% of the international studies of health care students and professionals, there were indications of ageism in medical decisions, and this trend has increased over time, said the researchers.”
It affects us all and it’s a prejudice that targets our future selves.
What Can I Do About It?
Assuming we’re all just “regular people’, without celebrity or lawmaking status, what can we do to fight ageism? Here are a few ways the “average Joe (or Josephine)” can combat ageism:
Speak up when you recognize a situation in which ageism is happening. Most often, the person creating the situation doesn’t realize how they sounds. Kindly point out a better view on the situation.
Be inclusive to all ages and participate in inter-generational activities (those in which many ages participate).
When you’re in a situation, think about if you would like the way that you speak with older people. Are you a healthcare professional who uses the “we” treatment? Eg ~ “We’re going to get a shower now/ How are we feeling?”. This treats the older person as less than a full individual.
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