July - August 2011; AgeismHave you ever had someone make an assumption about you because of your age? Ageism is stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups because of their age, and it is especially prevalent with older adults. Robert Butler coined the term in 1968, reflecting racism and sexism. He included three areas: prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the aging process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older people (Wikipedia).
Ageism is rampant in employment right now. Many people over 50 have lost their jobs and are having a very hard time getting re-employed. Research indicates that it is not uncommon to be out of work for 2 years, several months longer than any other age group. It appears prevalent that employers fear that older workers will have chronic diseases, miss work, and not keep up with technology and developments in the field. They also believe older workers expect more compensation. One would think that employers would value the wisdom and experience of older workers, who also often stay longer in a position and are better problem solvers!
Another all too common experience of ageism is with medical professionals. I have heard people report too often that their doctor said they were just experiencing a symptom because they were getting old. How often does this prevent the doctor from looking further into the cause of the symptom? Or seeking a treatment that will relieve pain and discomfort? Is the doctor listening for your quality of life goals?
What is happening when a runner says they are participating in a marathon and the response is “how long does it take to walk a marathon?” Or someone says they are getting a graduate degree at 60 and the response is “why bother?” What does it feel like when someone calls you “dear” or makes a sweeping statement about all seniors being a certain way?
Occasionally ageism can work in our favor. Everyone has that first experience of being asked if you want the senior discount at the movies, the grocery store or museum. Or that the person behind the counter doesn’t even ask and assumes you qualify! How did it feel? Was there the sense of celebration you had when you became of legal voting or drinking age? How do you respond when someone holds a door or offers to carry your groceries? Did you welcome it or say, “oh no, not me!” These discounts are now seen as an entitlement of age, absent any other criteria. It is one of the few ways that our American youth-oriented culture honors age.
There are several people in the aging field who are trying to combat ageism. They are making efforts to change the national attitude about aging to one which truly honors wisdom and experience, that does not urge everyone to look and act like teens. We want to spread the message that people continue to learn, grow, and contribute throughout the lifespan. Just as we have experienced the movements to eliminate racism and sexism, this shift will take time and take effort on everyone’s part.
First, be aware of ageism in yourself. A Gerontologist recently told a story about attending a Dave Brubeck concert and hearing himself remark at the end “he was great for a man of his age.” He caught himself and said, “he was great.” Do you perpetuate these stereotypes? Catch and change the remarks and assumptions you make about aging.
Second, speak up! Call other people on their ageist remarks and behavior. Don’t settle for the doctor saying you are just getting old. The marathon runner gave his stunned audience a lecture on how running had been a lifelong passion, how he trained and how he took care of his body through nutrition and healthcare. Do your part to educate others and change the face of aging.
Susan W. Hoskins, LCSW