Tackling Ageism: The Last "Acceptable" -Ism
From childhood, we’re bombarded by messages that tell us it’s sad and bad to be old. From the beauty ads that purport to have “anti-aging” powers that will keep skin “youthful” to insurance commercials that tell us not to “be like our parents” (aka “old”). From the news media questioning how old is “too old” to serve as president to describing the recent retirement of 41-year-old tennis great Roger Federer as due to the “ravages of age.” From the stock images of older people as a set of idle, disembodied hands to the birthday cards that poke fun at forgetfulness, wrinkles, and incontinence. When you stop and observe, these messages are everywhere. (The “Yo, Is This Ageist?” blog is chock full of more examples, as well as outstanding commentary on these tropes.)
Age hasn’t always been perceived in this way…in fact, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. In pre-industrialized societies, as in many Indigenous cultures to this day, people who lived to old age were esteemed for their roles as wisdom-keepers, spiritual teachers, and custodians of culture. With the Industrial Revolution, however, major economic and social transitions diminished the value of older members of society – very quickly, aging became a social problem to be solved (Applewhite, 2016), an economic burden to a capitalist system, a biomedical challenge that could be managed through science. And thus the seeds of ageism were planted.
We continue to water these seeds through ongoing age-based discrimination – which, rather than aging itself, is the “barrier to full participation in the world around us” (Applewhite, 2016). Unlike other forms of discrimination, however, ageism is a form of prejudice against our future selves. We’re all striving to live long lives, yet we look at older people as “not like us” rather than “us, just a little further down the road.” When we see older people as distasteful or disgusting – “frail”, “incompetent”, needy”, “out of touch”, “grumpy”, or “wrinkly”, to name a few – we are watering the seeds of future self-loathing. Research has found that older adults are the only group whose attitudes about old age are as disparaging as those held by the in- group – in this case, younger people (Levy and Banaji, 2004). This internalized ageism often occurs when we begin to experience the natural changes that occur with aging and begin to turn that distaste and disgust on ourselves in a number of insidious ways. We try everything we can to look younger, dying our graying hair and slathering on wrinkle remedies; we begin to say things like, “I’m just an old fogey, but…” or “I’m having a senior moment.” We decline much-needed socioeconomic supports like food assistance with the remark, “Younger people with families need it more than an old person like me.”
It’s easy, then, to understand how ageism, both internal and external, contributes to poorer quality of life for older adults. In her research, Becca Levy, a psychologist who studies psychosocial influences on older adults and author of the book Breaking the Age Code: How Your Age Beliefs Determine How Long and Well You Live (2022), found that health problems that have been thought to be entirely due to aging, such as cognitive changes, hearing loss, and cardiovascular issues, are instead influenced by negative age beliefs. Positive attitudes toward aging, conversely, lead to better health outcomes and, on average, a lifespan that is 7.5 years longer. In addition, condescending “elderspeak” – “sweetie”, “honey”, and so on – and overaccommodation for people experiencing hearing loss or dementia reinforce stereotypes of incompetence and incapacity in ways that instantly age people. Upon being subjected to these comments and behaviors, participants in a research study spoke, moved, and thought less capably (Whitbourne & Snead, 2004).
Negative views of aging, again both internal and external, also increase the risk of elder abuse and neglect. When we otherize older adults, it’s easier to stop seeing them as fully human and, as a result, we see their welfare as less of a human right (Applewhite, 2016); we see them as inconvenient and irrelevant. As an example, a 2023 article by Chan et al. describes how the effects of both implicit and explicit dehumanization lead to heightened likelihood of family caregivers abusing their older relatives, even after controlling for the impact of caregiver burden and both caregivers’ and care recipients’ health. Further, older adults may be less likely to speak up about mistreatment, as internalized ageism can affect perceptions of self-worth. Even when they do report abuse or neglect, our stereotypes of older adults’ cognitive functioning can lead us to disbelieve them. As the National Center on Abuse in Later Life notes, “When we don’t ascribe the full range of human experiences to older adults, we limit society’s ability to keep older victims safe and hold perpetrators accountable.”
So what can we do to begin changing these biases about age, both those that have been ingrained in us as individuals and those that permeate our culture? Here are a couple of ways that you can help make change:
Recognize it. Creating awareness requires that we understand there’s a problem – you can’t change something you don’t know needs changing, including yourself.
Speak up! If you hear something ageist, consider gently pointing it out.
Ask yourself, “Would I like it?” Treat older people with the respect you will want as you get older. Pay particular attention to the language you use, avoiding “elderspeak”.
Be inclusive. Find ways to promote intergenerational experiences.
Give yourself a break. If you realize that something you did with good intentions is really ageist, now you’re enlightened…and you can make different choices in the future.
The Tri-State Learning Collaborative on Aging has a page that introduces resources for reframing the way that we think about aging, and it’s a great place to learn more.