Ageism is a combination of prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the aging process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people. (Footnote: Butler, R. N. (1969). “Age-ism: Another form of bigotry”. The Gerontologist. 9 (4): 243–246. doi:10.1093/geront/9.4_part_1.243.)
Ageism is embedded in our culture. Early on in life we’re exposed to negative stereotypes of older people as buffoons, the butts of jokes and decrepit shells. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we fear aging, live in denial and avoid the topic.
If growing older isn’t challenging enough, we also have to a deal with the long-term side effects of ageism. For example,
- Individuals with more negative age stereotypes show significantly worse memory performance compared to those who hold less negative age stereotypes.
- Stereotyping causes people to disengage from domains that are perceived as threatening to one’s self-esteem, such as technology (which reinforces and perpetuates the stereotype).
- People subjected to negative aging stereotypes drive faster and less safely.
- Exposure to aging stereotypes stresses the cardiovascular system.
- A study linked the rate of development of brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s to people who held more negative thoughts on aging earlier in life.
Perhaps the most common way that ageism is experienced first-hand is through work-place age discrimination. One of the companies I worked for went to great lengths to tout its career development. Every year I would dutifully work through the process with my manager. I even went so far as to apply for one or two positions. Each time HR returned my application without an invitation to at least interview. They said that I was not qualified. Then the job would be awarded to a much younger, less qualified junior woodchuck.
Now that I’m retired, I experience ageism in other ways. It seems that as soon as I respond to “what do you do” with “I’m retired” (the R-bomb), interest in me and what I’m doing, falls off the cliff. Whenever I have to call tech support, the rep assumes that I know nothing and talks down to me. Potentially interesting meet-up groups often include overt or subtle age disqualifiers.
Even though the landscape of ageism is bleak, there are a few positive things to keep in mind.
- Be aware that there’s a difference between networking and conversing. Do not reflexively blame some of our negative experiences on our age.
- Realize that a positive view of aging raises the odds of improving from a severe disability by 44%.
- A belief that aging offers opportunities for continued growth results in better health, higher income, less loneliness and greater hope. People who feel good about aging take better care of themselves including preventative medicine and better diet.
- Holding a positive view on aging can add up to 7 ½ years of life
- Educate yourself about the realities and benefits of aging rather than accepting our cultural biases.
- Regular exercise enables people to feel better about their age.
- Don’t watch so much TV especially sitcoms which do not include many older adults and when they do they depict them in ways that contribute to negative stereotyping.
- Recognize that some “memory lapses” occur because we’re trying to multi-task or we’re not paying attention. This can happen to anyone!
- Associate with people who view aging positively and avoid those who don’t.
- Think about the benefits of advancing age instead of the detriments. Be proud and grateful that you’ve made it this far. Many people are not so fortunate.
You’ll notice that what these tactics have in common is that they depend on your attitude and adoption of behavioral changes. Society isn’t going to change over night. It’s our responsibility to retain a positive self-image, enjoy life and accept growing old. Our attitude can make a difference!
As an aside, I do not like the terms senior, senior citizen, elder, elderly, older adult, mature adult, I might as well include old fart too. I don’t even like “retired” (see My Identity Crisis). Is there a descriptive term that you prefer and if so why?