In America we often see aging solely in terms of debilitation—a process that robs people of their strength, ability, beauty, and health. Ashton Applewhite disagrees. “Aging is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured,” she says. “It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all.”
Applewhite, a Brooklyn-based writer and activist, is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Her widely viewed TED talk on re-envisioning aging makes a compelling case for throwing out the false and harmful stereotypes we learn early on and thoughtlessly perpetuate.
Why, in a world where bigotry is fought on every front, is discrimination against the elderly still tolerated? The “old geezer” stereotype isn’t doing anyone any favors. It’s not just emotionally harmful to older adults, but physically as well.
In fact, a 2016 article in the journal of the Association of Healthcare Journalists reports that studies show “real mental and physical consequences” of being exposed to ageism, including greater stress, slower recovery time from health setbacks, decreased will to live, and a shortened life span.
What is ageism?
You’ve likely heard the terms ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’ . . . but ‘ageism’? What’s that? Discrimination against the elderly isn’t discussed nearly as often in mainstream media.
The term, coined in 1968 by gerontologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Robert N. Butler, refers to a basic denial of older people’s human rights. Butler first used the phrase during a Washington Post interview for a story titled “Age and Race Fears Seen in Housing Opposition” – an article about the public’s resistance to building a housing complex for the elderly poor in their high-class neighborhood.
How ageism harms older adults
Not much has changed since the 1960s. Many people today still mock, antagonize, belittle, or otherwise discriminate against older adults. The reason is likely the same: they don’t want to imagine ever being enfeebled themselves.
This attitude, however, is highly harmful for the elderly as well as those around them.
- Harm the overall health of older adults. Studies show that those who are subject to age-related discrimination can suffer from higher levels of stress, depression, respiratory problems, and heart disease.
- Lead to emotional hardship. Older people are often made to feel like they are a burden or that others see them as less valuable, leading to low self-esteem and isolation. This, in turn, can also lead to physical decline.
- Cause mental decline. A 2018 study from Yale University showed that negative beliefs about aging may be linked to brain changes related to Alzheimer’s Disease. Specifically, people who have more negative thoughts about aging tend to have a greater number of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles – two conditions related to mental decline in dementia.
- Harm the future health of young people today. The same Yale study found that people who hold negative stereotypes about aging are less likely to be healthy in their own later years.
What can you do to fight ageism?
You likely have older loved ones in your life right now that you care about and want to see happy. In addition (whether or not you want to think about it), you will likely be an elderly person yourself one day.
The best thing you can do for both your loved ones – and yourself – is to fight the stereotypes surrounding aging:
- Use positive language. Think about how you discuss aging and age-related conditions: You may not even realize that you make negative jokes or help reinforce harmful stereotypes. Make a conscious choice to use positive language in regard to elders and aging.
- Share positive images of aging. Have you ever purchased an “over the hill” birthday card? Shared a meme about an older person unable to figure out technology? While they may seem harmless, things like that help perpetrate stereotypes. Instead, seek out books, movies, or images that portray the joy in growing older and share those!
- Call people out for ageist comments. When you hear someone make an insensitive joke or a cruel comment, bring it up just as you would any other inappropriate remark. Often, people don’t realize that what they’re saying is harmful and will be apologetic.
- Engage with older adults. Don’t just talk the talk – walk the walk. Volunteer at a senior center, take your older loved ones out to lunch, invite your younger friends over for game night with your grandmother. By taking the time to hang out socially with older adults, you will help show others that it’s not something to be avoided or mocked. This isn’t just to be kind; each generation benefits from spending time with one another.
- Avoid “Elderspeak.” It is galling to have your life experience and achievements erased by people who speak to you in a patronizing, over-familiar fashion. Don’t address seniors by their first names unless they invite you to do so, and certainly don’t use endearments. Keep in mind the words of Maggie Kuhn, founder of Gray Panthers: “The worst indignity is to be given a bedpan by a stranger who calls you by your first name.”
Like all prejudices, ageism is dehumanizing. It can have far-reaching implications for the physical, emotional, and social health of older adults. Each of us can work every day to help reduce stereotypes and harmful attitudes through our own positive outlooks.
Tell us – what do you do to help fight ageism?