Ageism can affect anyone
This resource will focus on ageism in reference to older adults, but it can happen across the lifespan. For example, some ageist discrimination may be directed at the very young new mother in the neonatal ICU or the “gig worker” without health insurance or the Millennial who is perceived to lack commitment to the organization they work for.
We are all aging through the life-course. Some things like disease and socioeconomic factors may speed that process along, but from the day we are born we begin the process of aging.
What is ageism?
According to the World Health Organization, “Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.”
Aging is a universal experience and yet ageism is highly tolerated in our society.
Please notice one missing “ism” from Oregon’s statute on bias motivated crime - discrimination based upon age:
“A hate crime, known as bias crime under Oregon law, is a crime motivated by bias against another person’s race, color, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity… Oregon’s bias crime was modified in 2019’s SB 577, and is codified under ORS 166.155 and 166.165” Retrieved from https://www.doj.state.or.us/oregon-department-of-justice/civil-rights/bias-and-hate/whats-the-difference-between-a-hate-or-bias-crime-and-a-bias-incident/ August 9, 2022.
If we are to work toward a more inclusive, integrated society, it is important to counter all harmful discrimination. In order to counter ageism, we must first identify it.
"Ageism can operate both consciously (explicitly) and unconsciously (implicitly), and it can be expressed at three different levels: micro-level (individual), meso-level (social networks) and macro-level (institutional and cultural). Furthermore, ageism has two distinct targets: Ageism can be directed at other individuals or “other-directed ageism”, such as when we think that other older people are slow or wise. Or ageism can be directed towards oneself, “self-directed ageism”. For instance, one may have negative feelings regarding their own aging. Marques, S., et al. (2020). Determinants of Ageism against Older Adults: A systematic review. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/7/2560/htm August 11, 2022.
Why should we care?
Ageism has serious and far-reaching consequences for people’s health and well-being and for human rights.
For older people, ageism is associated with a shorter lifespan, poorer physical and mental health, slower recovery from disability and cognitive decline. Ageism reduces older people’s quality of life, increases their social isolation and loneliness (both of which are associated with serious health problems), restricts their ability to express their sexuality and may increase the risk of violence and abuse.
Ageism is so socially acceptable there is a tendency to structure society based on an assumption that everyone is young, thereby failing to respond appropriately to the real needs of older people. It is so systemic, such as in the design and implementation of services, programs and facilities, that we limit the solutions and policies we implement.
As described by Margaret Morganroth Gullette in “Against ‘Aging’ How to Talk about Growing Older” (2017), to age is the “universal intersection. Most physical declines associated with growing older are not predictable… As in other domains where we are aged by culture, even many adverse effects on the body-mind are imposed, not innate; deeply intersectional; and start to accumulate early. Think of how embryonic development is determined by access to medical care and nourishing food; how environmental racism shortens some lives; how poverty impedes healthy eating; how work stress can create hypertension and heart disease; how unemployment, sexism, homophobia, ableism or other prejudices, worsened by ageism, can devastate mental health and be life-threatening.”
Ageism magnifies a lifetime of discrimination, and as Morganroth Gullette continues, "Ageism is allied intersectionally with misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, classism, and other biases, in the sense that any of these prejudices, and certainly the compound ones (e.g., against women of color), are likely to worsen with the increasing age of the targets."
Changing attitudes will take time, but we can start with language. We connect with one another through our words and actions.
Some micro-aggressions directed towards our elders may include “elder speak”, infantilization through tone or volume or descriptors, and back-handed compliments. Or when a doctor talks to the adult child instead of their parent, the actual patient.
The Reframing Aging Initiative has a useful tool kit for communications strategies that help improve messaging and they offer technical support. Take a look at their Quick Start Guide to begin the conversation.
Next steps to address ageism
- Recognize that we are all growing older, no matter our age.
- Identify your own, internalized fears.
- Acknowledge the role that you play.
- Change your thoughts, language/word choice and actions.
This can be done through education and information campaigns or trainings among health care providers on the risks associated with ageism.
Applewhite, Ashton. (2016). This Chair Rocks: A manifesto against ageism. New York: Networked Books.
The related website, Old School: Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse, is a clearinghouse of resources to educate people about ageism and help dismantle it.
Aronson, Louise. (2019). Elderhood: Redefining aging, transforming medicine, reimagining life. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Butler, Robert. (1975). Why Survive?: Being old in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Croff, Raina, ed. (2022). “Aging While Black in Oregon”. https://ageplus.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Aging-While-Black-in-Oregon.pdf
Gendron, Tracey. (2022). Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It. New York: Penguin Random House.
Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. (2013). Agewise: Fighting the new ageism in America. Chicago, IL: The University Chicago Press. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/A/bo10385719.html
Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. (2017). Ending Ageism or How Not to Shoot Old People. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Gutterman, Alan. (2022). Ageism and Intersectionality: Older Persons as Members of Other Vulnerable Groups. Oakland CA: Older Persons' Rights Project. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3972842 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3972842
Holman, Daniel & Walker, Alan. (2021). Understanding unequal ageing: Towards a synthesis of intersectionality and life course analyses. European Journal of Ageing, 18:239–255. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10433-020-00582-7 August 10, 2022.
Kagan, Sarah H. (2012). Gotcha! Don't let ageism sneak into your practice. Geriatr Nurs. Jan-Feb 33(1):60-2. DOI: 10.1016/j.gerinurse.2011.11.007
Kydd, Angela & Fleming, Anne. (2015). Ageism and age discrimination in health care: Fact or fiction? A narrative review of the literature. Maturitas. 81(4): 432-438.
Lacus, Mark. (2010). Treat Me, Not My Age: A doctor’s guide to getting the best care as you or a loved one gets older. New York: Viking Press.
Levy, Beca. (2022). Breaking the Age Code: How your beliefs about aging determine how long and well you live. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Marques, Sibila, et al. (2020). Determinants of Ageism against Older Adults: A Systematic Review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 17(7): 2560. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17072560
Nelson, Todd, ed. (2002). Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons, (2nd Ed). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/ageism-second-edition