As we begin the year 2023, I’ve been thinking about the extra layers of opposition seniors have had to contend with recently. A lot of the risk of COVID-19 fell on that population, for example.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about ageism and how that affects the seniors in our community. And I’m wondering: Do we discriminate or stereotype against seniors, even if that isn’t our intention?
This topic only becomes more relevant as our population of older individuals increases. Ten thousand people in the United States are turning 65 every day and will make up 20 percent of our population by 2050.
Dr. Robert N. Butler coined the term “ageism” back in 1969, as he studied discrimination against seniors. He defined ageism as three connected elements: attitudes of prejudice against older people and the process of getting older, discriminatory practices against seniors, and institutional policies that advance stereotypes about seniors.
You’ll notice some subtleties in that definition that most of us don’t consider. In his study, Dr. Butler identified that “deep seated uneasiness” and “personal revulsion” to topics like death, disease and feeling powerless play into how we treat those who are older than us.
Personally, I believe ageism plays a greater factor in the lives of seniors than many of us realize. I’ve seen it in the opposition Heart2Heart faces as we advocate for seniors. I’ve even seen evidence of ageism in our constant challenge to recruit volunteers to work with seniors.
My challenge to the community is for each of us to consider if we’ve unknowingly stereotyped or discriminated or had certain prejudices against people because of their age.
I’ll be the first to say that I’ve been guilty of ageism. Not intentionally, of course. And at my age of 41, my kids have probably done it to me because they thought I didn’t know some new lingo or technology because of my age.
I think avoiding ageism requires that we intentionally grapple with our own thoughts and attitudes about getting older.
How are we unintentionally ageist?
Medical News Today identifies three types of ageism. Institutional ageism might be the type of age-based discrimination we think of most. This might manifest as a workplace that doesn’t hire someone because of their age — whether they are too old or too young.
Internalized ageism applies to how seniors think about themselves, which I want to address later this month. Interpersonal ageism speaks to discriminations that occur in social situations.
Interpersonal ageism can present itself in ways you might not think of. For example, you might see an older person walking into a store and get irritated that they’re walking slower than you. You might reach out to open the door or lift something for a senior, thinking that they might not be strong enough to do it themselves.
Praising people by comparing them to their younger counterparts may betray an underlying stereotype as well. I think we should even evaluate our thoughts behind seemingly tame phrases like “You look good for your age!”
As you interact with those older than you, consider your own subconscious thoughts and attitudes about aging. For example, we should be aware that not every person who is over 65 is retired. We shouldn’t assume that all seniors are sick or dependent on prescriptions for their wellbeing.
It used to be that when an older person walked into a waiting room and there were no seats, someone would get up and offer their seat. This was viewed as a sign of respect to that older person.
Today, some seniors might feel offended by the offer. They might reject the perceived stereotype that they need to sit down because of their age and implied physical impairment.
Not every senior is going to move the same or act the same. Every senior can, and should, have their own ideas of what it means to be older.
What’s worse than ageism?
I’d also like to suggest that beyond interpersonal ageism is something even more harmful. What if it gets to the point where the older person feels entirely ignored, like they’re not even there?
Ignoring a person’s presence and ignoring their needs is a form of ageism as well.
When seniors are placed in a nursing home and then forgotten, I think that speaks to our own fears about getting older, getting sick and dying.
Remember the seniors in your life. Remember to call and visit them. They have more to teach us. They have value as members of our community.
When you’re ready, Heart2Heart offers a wide range of opportunities to connect with seniors. Find one that fits into your lifestyle and battle against ageism with us!