Ageism, discrimination based on age and usually focused on the elderly, is destructive, patronizing and exclusionary. It can lead to fear, discrimination, and damaged self-esteem.
There is little doubt that older adults living in Western society fall victim to aspects of ageism. Researchers indicate that by age 40, many businesses consider men ‘too old’ to be hired in some executive jobs or considered for promotions!
We are constantly reminded of age by ads, books, TV, and social media. Some product labels contain cautions for older people.
In Ontario where I live, outright discrimination due to age when it comes to employment, housing and contracts is illegal. Most jurisdictions in Canada have similar laws that protect human rights.
But despite laws, ageism is everywhere. It is not always obvious but it is prevalent.
Ageism is Rampant
Popular culture, the media and content marketers portray older people as unproductive, demanding and helpless and not as self-sufficient adults.
When targeting older consumers, ads are often demeaning showing forgetfulness, physical incapacity or problems with personal care.
The fact that most older adults — as consumers — have more assets than young people is largely ignored except by luxury car makers selling ‘old man’ sedans or anti-aging beauty products for women. Drug companies have also stepped up to make money on drugs that target chronic illnesses or problems of aging.
Politicians practise ageism with frequent comments that young workers must bear the costs of pensions and health care for retired people through taxes. They play on fears of future high taxes to cover pension benefits while conveniently forgetting that retirees paid taxes during their working years and most, continue to pay taxes during retirement.
Nearly every comedian and late night talk show host has jokes about old people in their routine.
Sadly, old people themselves joke about their age using derogatory terms such as old geezer, crone, fogey, biddy or codger when referring to themselves. Moments of forgetfulness are brushed aside as ‘senior moments’.
Ageism abounds in the retail environment. Clerks ignore older people or patronize them. Requests for information are often answered using simple terms and in loud voices. As a white-haired woman, I am often addressed as ‘dear’ in statements like “can I help you, dear?” Such unwanted comments from perfect strangers are distasteful.
In the health care system, older patients are less likely to receive necessary medical treatments as professionals may feel there is a chance the person is too old or too weak to withstand certain surgeries or that full rehabilitation may be impossible.
Ageism also exists In families.
Children and grand children may regard an aging parent/grand parent as ugly or sick or deaf or forgetful and not as a kind, loving, friendly and interesting adult. Perceptions of incompetence and dependence often become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Older adults who remain in the workplace may be seen as less energetic, less flexible or uncomfortable with technology.
Women may suffer more from ageism because the health and beauty industries make billions of dollars by feeding on women’s anxiety about growing old. Older women are often regarded as ditzy and child-like. They are largely invisible in society and their opinions are under-valued or openly dismissed.
Given the pervasiveness of ageism, it makes sense to have an arsenal of effective responses. You don’t want your retirement happiness threatened any more than necessary by ageism.
All of us can begin by recognizing ageism in all of its disguises and subtleties. By understanding and naming ageism when it happens to you or when you see the broader culture or the media practise it, you learn how to challenge it — economically, socially and politically.
But awareness is only a first step. Once you know who you are and what your assets represent as a consumer and as a voter, you can exercise some muscle.
When staff in your favourite store or your bank or your auto service centre diminish or patronize you, let them know and take your business elsewhere.
If elected representatives make comments that insinuate that pensions are a drain on the economy, let them know and then change your vote.
When faced with situations where incompetence due to age happens, play it to advantage. One of my friends loves to stop traffic to allow her to enter a lane by sticking her beautiful head of white hair out the driver’s window and waving happily at the traffic. Cars always stop for her! She then returns the courtesy with a wave and a big smile.
Ageism in health care is difficult to combat. Honest and direct conversation with your doctor will help to determine if a decision is based on age. A respectful request for a 2nd opinion is rarely refused.
As parents and grandparents we can recognize ageism affects our children and our grand children. We can refute stereotypes by remaining involved and interested in their lives without making unnecessary or selfish demands for attention. By example, we can use our strength and wisdom to help and support them as they learn that we are more than the media portrays.
We can also work actively to change the world for older people by supporting anti-discriminatory laws and by working for social justice for everyone.
As more boomers retire, society will begin to recognize the diversity and strength of older people. Until that happens, I will wear my white hair with defiance and pride; I will enjoy the strength and wisdom of my 67 years; and I will speak confidently to those who would try to demean me in daily interactions.