Ageism – What is it and how do we deal with it?

by Ron Jeffery, Wellness Committee Member

The World Health Organization defines ageism as “prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping based on age.”

A 2020 University of Michigan National Poll in the United States on Healthy Aging found that 82 per cent of surveyed adults ages 50-80 reported regularly experiencing at least one form of “everyday ageism.”

Also, according to the World Health Organization Trusted Source, “Every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes, leading to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons.

I do want to clarify that ageism can impact all age groups. For the purposes of this article though, my focus will be on ageism experienced by older adults, the impact it has, and some ways we may be able to counteract potential harm from experiencing it in our daily lives.

For most of us, the pandemic made ageism worse. We became more isolated from our families and neighbours, but we also became “invisible” as many older adults were less likely to maintain relationships and stimulation through technology such as Zoom and social media. As the pandemic began, many saw the pandemic as being mainly a threat to seniors. This was illustrated by the heartbreaking news reports of seniors in long term care facilities holding up signs through windows to their loved ones, unable to hug or have physical contact with others.

The pandemic also exacerbated the crisis in health care and often, as our hospitals were at, or above capacity, long term care facilities became short staffed. For those who required timely health care due to age or illness, the consequences of neglect were stark.

What happened to the value of our elders?

Ageism often manifests in the belief that older adults are less able to accomplish a task or skill due to their age. Many of us may have had this experience at some point in our lives, but I wonder how much of this may be cultural. There are many cultures in the world, including Indigenous Canadians, who place a high value on the experience of their elders. The recent efforts by elders to pass down language and customs to younger generations has been well-received, though it requires effort and facilitation.

Respect for, and the desire to learn from, seniors does not appear to be inculcated in western society. This needs to change, though it would require a major shift in attitude, awareness, and education.

Ageism is often systemic, built into our norms and practices, and it is not taken seriously as an issue. Like any form of inequity though, while those who are on the receiving end of ageism suffer as individuals, so too does society at large. For example, as workplaces set an expiry date on the usefulness of employees, it loses those who have a lifetime of experience and an established work ethic. Considering the shortage of labour around the world as we emerge from the pandemic, this is a missed opportunity for both efficiency and productivity.

Stereotyping of older adults is also endemic in media. If we recognize that our younger generations gain self-affirmation from representations of their age group in media, we can also recognize that our older generations can experience emotional trauma from not being represented, or poorly represented. Walk through any mall or watch any contemporary film and you will see images of vibrant, sexy, physically able young people; If older people are represented, it is usually a representation of limitation, rather than possibility.

Another aspect of ageism can be targeted harm: scams, for example, are often aimed at seniors. Disregarding someone’s concerns or wishes due to their age, or taking advantage of someone’s age for personal gain is another. This is not just an example of ageism but also elder abuse.

In health care, older patients are often overprescribed or not treated in a timely fashion due to time constraints of health professionals, lack of professional education of geriatric issues, and government funding policies. All the above can directly impact the physical and mental health — and even survival — of seniors.

How ageism affects us all (WHO Trusted Source)
  • Higher rates of illness both physical and mental
  • Higher healthcare spending
  • Poverty
  • Lower life expectancy (a decrease of 7.5 years on average)
How ageism can be reduced (WHO Trusted Source)
  • Education to dispel myths and stereotypes and raise awareness of ageism
  • Intergenerational interventions, which create cooperation and empathy between age groups
  • Law and policy changes that can reduce inequality and discrimination
On a personal level, we can all do things in our interactions with others such as:
  • Correcting stereotyping and misinformation, challenging ageist jokes, speaking out against discrimination
  • Develop skills to counteract ageism in the media, your community and in your own family. This can be as simple as creating an atmosphere and environment of empathy, compassion, and understanding.

Ageism is real. Ageism is hurtful. Ageism is dangerous to the health and well-being of ourselves and those we love.

Be aware and be proactive.

We can’t stop getting older, but we do not have to accept nor subscribe to ageism.

I leave you with the message that Alberta’s former Chief Medical Officer shared at the end of her daily briefings during the pandemic:

“Remember to be kind.”