By Barbara Croyle and Nancy Verdin
“There are six myths about old age: 1. That it’s a disease, a disaster. 2. That we are mindless. 3.That we are sexless. 4. That we are useless. 5. That we are powerless. 6. That we are all alike.” Maggie Kuhn, Founder of the Gray Panthers
“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” Gabriel García Márquez, Author
“By the time you’re 80 years old you’ve learned everything. You only have to remember it.” George Burns, Comedian
Which of these quotes can you relate to? And did you laugh at the last one? I bet you did. And maybe that’s okay as long as you don’t translate your own foibles onto every older adult you meet. That would be an example of ageism.
Ageism is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudices (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.”
Also, according to WHO, ageism often intersects and interacts with other forms of stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination including ableism, sexism and racism. We know that any kind of prejudice or discrimination based on stereotypes can be harmful not just to the person being subjected to it, but also to the person doing the stereotyping. And to be clear, ageism is not just a problem for older adults; people of other age groups can be the target of this prejudice at various times in their lives.
Ageism, an often unnoticed yet pervasive issue, allows preconceived notions about abilities and worth to seep into our societal fabric. It perpetuates stereotypes, portraying the young as naive and the old as incompetent. As we grow older, ageist comments become more pronounced, and sadly, they are often met with uncritical acceptance. Next time you shop for a birthday card, notice how many cards undermine the joy of celebrating another year of life and instead send the message that aging, a very natural process of life, is viewed as a negative.
In a 2005 article in the Journal of Social Issues Todd Nelson said, “Ageism is prejudice against our future self.”
Can that be healthy? No. Ageism can shorten a lifespan by 7.5 years, according to a 2002 study by Becca Levy. Individuals with a more positive self-perception of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions. This advantage exists even after age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and functional health were considered.
Furthermore, people with a more positive self-perception about aging experienced better overall health.
Consider how older people are typically portrayed in the media. Overall, there are still significant negative representations in advertisements, television and movies. These ageist stereotypes can have a negative impact on an older adult’s self-esteem, health status, physical well-being and cognitive performance. Also, in the absence of positive portrayals of older people, they are left to wonder, “Where are the people who look and act like me”?
Ageism is a hurtful, insulting and uninformed type of discrimination. Even well-intentioned “compliments” or comments—such as calling any older adult “honey” or “sweetie” promotes a demeaning and infantilizing view of an older person.
Older adults are a vital and important part of society. They make countless contributions and represent a meaningful and growing segment of the population.
On Ageism Awareness Day, Oct. 7, let’s take a moment to consider how we treat older adults and how we want to be treated as we age.
And maybe take a lesson from media star and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey who said: “Every year should teach you something valuable; whether you get the lesson is up to you. Every year brings you closer to expressing your whole and healed self.”
Or Frank Lloyd Wright, architect: “The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.”
Barbara Croyle, JD, is the Founder of AgingConfident LLC, and consults with family caregivers and solo agers in the greater Philadelphia area. She is also a member of theAmerican Society on Aging’s Ageism & Culture Advisory Council.
Nancy Verdin is a Graduate Assistant at the SDSU Social Policy Institute.