Ageism — its deadly impact and what we can do about it

Two months ago, I went online looking for a movie clip that represented older adults, as part of my attempt to study Human Growth & Development. It struck me then that only a handful of movies produced in the last many decades, represented older adults as dignified and wholesome individuals, who lived meaningful lives. Mostly older characters had been relegated to roles of insignificance, characterized as victims of debilitating illnesses, dependent on the more “healthy” and “capable” youngsters or were painted as grumpy, stubborn, hostile people, hanging on to irrelevant and outdated values, beliefs, or worse — as people off their rockers all together.

It was a disturbing discovery, more so because I realized that inadvertently I had been discriminating against older adults myself in subtle ways. For instance, when I made statements like — “It’s good to have younger people in the group because it adds a fresh burst of energy”, implying that the middle aged and the older adults are incapable of being energetic, I was practicing Ageism. It also struck me that not just me but many like me who consider ourselves to be open minded and unbiased, people who would stand up without a second thought for rights of women or minority groups, often overlook Ageism.

What is Ageism?

According to World Health Organisation Ageism is defined as the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age; ageism can take many forms, including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs. While ageism refers to prejudice against people of any age, I have tried to address the prevalence of it in relation to older adults.

Understanding the term ‘Older adults’?

Older adults refer to adults above the age of 65. In today’s world, the average lifespan ranges from 70s to late 90s. So, to plonk a 65-year-old and a 95-year-old together as just “old” seems rather unfair. The whole idea that as we age we stop contributing to the society and stop living meaningful lives or the expectation that after a certain age we should live our lives as after-thoughts, while the “youngsters” and “children” invigorate and build an energetic and wholesome society is an unacceptable and unhealthy myth. Older adults form approximately 15% of the world’s population and this 15% is as integral a part of today’s world, as the children who will be our “tomorrow”.

Why does it exist?

Why do we end up practicing ageism and yet are so unaware and insensitive to this form of discrimination? There are two reasons for this. One is that majority of the human adults can relate to what children go through because all of us have gone through childhood to reach adulthood, however we do not fully appreciate the physical, mental and intellectual capabilities of older adults or the discrimination one faces due to older age, until we get to that age. The second, more malicious reason is that old age is consistently represented as a negative state and associated with degeneration, disease, powerlessness and sometimes with loss of dignity, by the media.

According to Ashton Applewhite, a writer and activist against ageism, the multibillion dollar pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies have vested interests in keeping this culture of discriminating against the older adults. The fear of showing the unsightly “symptoms” of aging like greying, wrinkling or sagging of skin, makes us rush to the doctors, medical/cosmetic shops and salons. Most of us do not want to look old despite the fact that ageing is a natural progression of human life and an enriching one at that. If this fear and shame can motivate a majority of the adult population to spend huge amounts of hard earned money on feeding their denial of ageing, then why would these industries be motivated to stop promoting stereotypes or discouraging ageism?

Breaking the myths about old age

In a study of 65 to 91 year olds done by James Birren and his colleagues in 1963, they tried to address the question — How would an elderly person function if he or she managed to remain completely disease free. And this is what they found — In those who were perfectly healthy and had no signs of disease at all, the older men hardly differed from the younger men. They were equal even in their capacity for physical exercise and they actually beat the younger men on measures of intelligence requiring general information or knowledge of vocabulary words. Overall ageing itself in the absence of disease had little effect on physical and psychological functioning. And it is also true that disease had a more significant impact on performance measures.

Impact of society and culture on the process of ageing

In an article Cultural perceptions of aging affect health status and care giving, by Liz Seegert (senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University), she says “A new study out of the United Kingdom reinforces the influence that culture and societal attitudes can have on the health status of older adults. Psychologists from the University of Kent used data from the European Social Survey to ask respondents, all age 70 or older, to self-rate their health.

In countries where old age is thought of as signifying low status, participants who identified themselves as ‘old’ felt worse about their own health. The opposite was true in places where older people have a perception of higher social status. The researchers concluded that elevating perceived social status of older people would reduce negative connotations associated with old age and the negative impact on how healthy people felt.”

The message is clear — Ageism is leading to our entire human race viewing old age negatively, in the process, shaming people and impacting health. But that is not all, it has some substantial impact on the self-esteem, confidence, performance, quality of everyday life and the overall spirit of people who are subjected to it.

Ageism in action

Some of the typical behaviours that amount to prejudice are — dismissing ideas and opinions of older adults; insisting that people do not drive or carry out other activities as they may be slow or may pose a danger for themselves and others; offering to carry grocery bags for perfectly healthy older adults; denying jobs to older people; refusing credit cards or other facilities and services by institutions — to name a few. We participate in this discrimination not only when we treat older adults differently but also when we choose to believe that we are lesser ourselves because of our age; when we look down on our own bodies as they grow older and deny ourselves opportunities and activities that help us to create, to have fun, to thrive and to progress, citing them as age inappropriate.

Conclusion

Ashton Applewhite has got to the crux of the matter when she says that we first need to be aware that such a bias exists, before we can attempt to bring about change. Breaking the stigma around growing old, shattering the stereotypes that seem to accompany age and changing the belief that ageing equals impoverishment, requires us to be first become aware and acknowledge that something needs to be done about it. We then need to take steps in our own lives by treating the older adults in our families and our communities with dignity and respect because they deserve nothing less!

Let’s see people as more than their age. Let’s stop glorifying youth and denigrating old age and stop standing in the way of people living full lives, not just because it is the fair thing to do but because we owe it to ourselves to be enriched by the wisdom and grace that only experiencing life can bring.

Age is not merely a biological function of the number of years one has lived, or of the physiological changes the body goes through during the life course. It is also a product of the social norms and expectations that apply to each stage of life. Age represents the wealth of life experiences that shape whom we become.
- George Ritzer and Neil Guppy