Ageism Can Harm Older Adults

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Check Your Attitude

This article reveals how ageism can harm older adults. You and your parents can take actions to avoid the traps of stereotyping the older generation.

We know that racism, sexism, and other “isms” can harm us and those around us, but there is another “ism” that can rob us of insight and understanding and cause unnecessary grief in our families. That is ageism.

What is Ageism?

Ageism refers to stereotyping and discriminating against or in favor of a particular age group. Robert Butler, who coined the term in 1968, wrote that ageism highlights a few exaggerated characteristics of a particular age group and assumes that these qualities apply to everyone in that group.

Ask a teenager “Who is old?” and he or she will probably reply “Anyone over 30.” Then ask the thirty-something and you will likely hear “People over 60.”  But, if you ask the senior, you will probably get another answer, such as, “Anyone ten years older than I am.”

When teens forget, we think of them as uninterested or distracted. The forgetful adult is often called “stressed.” But seniors’ lapses are labeled senility, “losing it,” or “senior moments.”

How does ageism develop?

Like all biased beliefs, ageism develops when individuals are unfamiliar or uninformed about a particular group of people. With increasing mobility, very few families live in a multigenerational household. Some of you grew up with grandparents, but many others had little exposure to the older generation and do not know what to expect when their own aging parents reach later life. In addition, increasing longevity has resulted in greater numbers of older seniors than ever before.

Ageism and discrimination are closely related. The term ageism refers to the negative attitude, while discrimination refers to the negative behaviour. 

Ageism in healthcare

Unfortunately, we can find ageism and discrimination in healthcare practice; for example, when doctors do not want older patients because they need longer appointments. Another example of ageism is when a treatable problem is overlooked because it is assumed to be caused by aging. In this way, ageism can harm older adults.

Palmore has written extensively about ageism. He believes it is manifested in many ways. Palmore asked a group of seniors whether they had experienced ageism and the majority reported several incidents. The most frequent types were persons showing disrespect for older people, followed by persons showing assumptions about ailments or frailty causedby age.

Can positive ageism occur? Some people hold positive stereotypes about the older generation. These beliefs include the ideas of kindness, dependability, affluence, freedom, and wisdom.  Just as negative ageism may contain some truth for specific individuals but not for others, the same holds for positive ageism. Just as older people may not be ill, they might also not necessarily be kind.

What is Aging Anxiety?

Do you worry about growing older? If you answered yes, then like many mid-life adults you have aging anxiety.  

You might feel this anxiety because you:

  • live in a youth-oriented society.
  •  observe aging parents with serious chronic illnesses.
  •  lack knowledge about positive aspects of aging and adaptation.
  • are experiencing age-related changes as you enter your later years

Near the time of retirement people begin to worry about future health as well as economic independence. Some fear changes in physical appearance associated with aging.

Aging anxiety affects both attitudes and behaviours towards older people, but it also influences adjustment to your own aging experience. Knowledge about aging, such as the information that you will learn in this book, can help to alleviate your anxiety about growing older.

“When boomers are unnerved by the faces that stare back at them from the mirror, when their knees start to creak, when their sex drives do not drive them, or when they feel too stressed, or tired for sex, depression is not far behind. The generation who see themselves as changing the world must now face middle age, learning to live with losses and limitations while moving on with hope to new options.”   Gloria Hochman

Hochman, Gloria. What’s driving boomers crazy? Therapists report on their most urgent problems today. New Choices: Living Even Better After 50. 38(2): 30-33, 1998.

Preventing the Harmful Effects of Ageism

Your aging parents may experience more overt ageism in their daily lives, which can cause them to feel left out of the mainstream of society. Having a sense of meaning and purpose in life is essential to emotional and mental health. Knowing more about factors that affect life satisfaction can help you to promote your parent’s emotional and social well-being. You will find out more about healthy aging in Chapter Two, Your Roadmap to Healthy Aging.

Ageism tends to focus on negative images and assumes that older individuals have less to live for, experience less joy, and are incapable of learning or have no desire to learn new skills. As with all stereotypes, these assumptions fail to recognize individual characteristics and variation within the group. You can stand up to this negative view by noticing the adaptability of older people. You can learn more about specific adaptations in Chapter Three: Everyday Realities of Aging.

Finally, ageism may cause you or your parents to avoid treatment for treatable problems on the false assumption that the symptoms are just a part of aging and nothing can be done. Another way that ageism can harm older adults.

For the references and additional resources, download Ageism: Check Your Attitude

Challenge yourself with the quiz, Ageism: Stereotypes About Older Adults

Use the activity to reflect on ageism and aging anxiety. Could lead to an interesting conversation with your parents.

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