Raging against Ageism

By Jocelyn A. Brown, PhD ~

As a woman and as a person of color, I am familiar with prejudicial attitudes and practices of discrimination. The past 100+ years have been a hard-fought battle for equality and inclusion.  The world has seen protests, violence, education, and reform lift gender and race issues out of the margins and into the forefront of society. We haven’t reached full equity in either area, but we have progressed out of the dark ages of complete imbalance. While none of our liberties are guaranteed, as we’ve seen over the past several years, we can say that the world is fully aware and can no longer live in ignorance. Yet, despite our social progress with race and gender equality over the last century, we are woefully out of touch with another prevalent and elusive social ill called ageism.

The American Psychological Association says ageism is one of the last socially acceptable prejudices and Virginia Commonwealth University’s research on the topic concludes that ageism has been normalized to the point of being invisible. Why is ageism so widely accepted in modern society? The most critical answer is that we don’t recognize ageism for what it is.  Theoretically, we understand that ageism is prejudiced attitudes, stereotyping, and discriminatory practices against individuals based on age and that it can be directed at both the young and old. Yet, practically speaking, we don’t often understand the look and sound of ageism. Furthermore, implicit biases or stereotypes (how we think), often make it difficult to recognize prejudicial attitudes (how we feel), which can lead to discrimination (how we act).  Ageism, targeted at an older population can take the form of well-intentioned negative language,  which can sound like: 

“YOU know how to tweet???” 

“You look good for your age.” 

“He’s having a senior moment.” 

Negative language in a residential setting, for example, can sound like: 

“This isn’t a nursing home/ facility.” 

“It’s not our job to babysit elderly residents.” 

“Age is not an excuse for not staying on top of technology.” 

Ageism can take the form of negative actions such as discussing a person with a third party while the person is present – talking “around” a person. This occurs often in medical and 

caregiving situations. The assumption is that the person cannot speak for themselves or understand that they are the topic of conversation. The oversight leaves the person feeling invisible and unnecessary in decisions made about their own lives. In some cases, the person cannot discuss their own well-being. This doesn’t necessarily mean the person cannot understand or intuit that the conversation is about them. 

The end result of ageist attitudes and actions is a marginalization of a vital segment of society.  We stop listening, hearing, and caring. CNN Health reported in 2021 that Joanne Whitney, an 84-year-old retired associate clinical professor of pharmacy from the University of California-San  Francisco, was summarily ignored by an ER physician who wanted to administer an antibiotic that she knew wouldn’t treat her urinary tract infection. The physician refused to listen, even after being told of her credentials. She gave up. Fortunately, an outpatient renal facility changed her prescription. Feeling invisible is a common complaint in emergency rooms, medical offices,  nursing facilities, and residential communities. Negative language and negative actions stem from negative viewpoints or prejudice about the population. We believe they are not relevant in the management of their lives, so we create policies based on our prejudices, resulting in discrimination. 

What we cannot fail to realize is that ageism and ageist attitudes directly impact all of society and not merely for the fact that we are all going to be living these experiences at some point. It’s true that between 2020 and 2050, the population of people over 80 years of age is expected to triple globally. Hence, the quality of our future lives depends upon the attitudes we cultivate today. But it’s also disconcerting and eye-opening to learn that ageism is associated with an earlier death by 7.5 years according to a study by Becca Levy, who wrote Breaking the Age  Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. Her study revealed that the attitudes we have about aging and the aged have everything to do with our own self-perceptions. Her study concluded that a more positive self-perception about aging will increase our life span.  

The crux of the matter is ageism is pervasive in our world. We make fun of getting older, we buy  greeting cards that poke fun at aging, and we sigh and laugh about “senior moments.” We tolerate and encourage ageist beliefs, not recognizing the detrimental effect on others, the impact on society, or the self-harm caused by our limiting beliefs about age. So, how do we turn the tide of this negative influence on society? A three-step process is highly recommended: 

  1. Reflect – learn the language, thoughts, and actions of ageism. Listen to your words and thoughts. Listen to others. Recognize the subtleties of ageist attitudes. 
  2. Educate – retrain your thinking and actions. Address ageism within yourself, address  ageism in others, address ageism in your community. 
  3. Participate – the movement against ageism is growing. Take a free course, alone or with others, join campaigns and access resources.  
  4. National Age Without Apology Month – June 1 – June 30, 2024 
  5. #ElevateAging Campaign – A year-long calendar of monthly resources, supports,  interactive activities 
  6. Ageism Awareness Day – typically in October 
  7. Virginia Commonwealth University Age and Ability Inclusion Toolkit – offers an  assessment rubric and a Community Dialogue Guide 
  8. Ageism Quiz/Course – study.com offers Psych 108: Psychology of Adulthood and  Aging 
  9. Invite others to participate with you.

There are many ways to grow beyond ageism, to affect change in society, and to protect our  own futures. We put great effort into living longer, eating healthier, and exercising. It only makes sense to address the emotional, social, and physical well-being that comes with a healthy attitude towards aging.  

Resources:  

https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/17/health/age-discrimination-khn-partner-wellness/index.html https://www.who.int/news/item/18-03-2021-ageism-is-a-global-challenge-un 

Jocelyn A. Brown, PhD, is the founder and director of Silver Wings Arts Program, an adult day center in Boulder focused on music, art, and movement. For more information, visit  silverwingsartsprogram.org or call 720-436-6397 or 970-480-7505. Email  seniorsitterscolorado@gmail.com

Comments

  1. David Jamookeeah

    A very insightful and illuminating paper on:
    1) how self-perception, beliefs, values and attitudes perpetuate Ageism in our society;
    2) practical and active ways to turn the tide of these negative influences and unacceptable behaviours;
    Guides to useful resources and future actions are most helpful.
    Thank you, Dr. J A Brown

  2. Also a woman and person of color, I find ageism to be the more difficult discrimination to combat for the very reasons mentioned in this article. However, I also feel that being a woman and person of color equipped me to stand up to it.

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