Is Ageism Really a Thing?

Another New Year’s resolution to consider is taking ageism seriously.

Posted Dec 31, 2019

“Is ageism really a thing? Isn’t it a sad fact that with age, everyone loses their memory, patience, utility, and worth and becomes increasingly more depressed, grumpy, helpless, ill, incompetent, lonely, stubborn, unattractive, and burdensome to society?”

Steve Evans/Wikimedia
Grandmother and grandchild.
Source: Steve Evans/Wikimedia

Those are not facts. Those are myths based on ageism—negative stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination toward the older end of the age continuum.

 “Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially ‘normalized’ of any prejudice and is not widely challenged—like racism or sexism” (World Health Organization).

"Normalized" refers to discriminatory employment practices that pass over highly qualified older workers for hire and promotions, that lay-off competent older workers at a higher rate than other workers, and that apply a mandatory retirement age to workers who are fully capable and who need and want to continue working.

"Normalized" also refers to discriminatory practices in health care settings that lead to older adults receiving lower-quality health care, misdiagnosis of ailments such as depression, and insufficient recommendations for treatable ailments.

"Normalized" additionally refers to huge and profitable industries of “over the hill” birthday party supplies, “old goat” birthday cards, and “emergency potty and diaper kit” gag gifts poking fun of older adulthood as well as to the billion-dollar market of creams and treatment armed to fight and conceal any and all signs of harmless wrinkles.

Ageist discourse has progressed from referring to the growing older adult population as a problem, threat, and burden to a “silver tsunami” that will wipe out societal resources. Ageism, like racism and sexism, serves to justify inequality, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.

Sklei/Pexels
Grandparents provide free childcare.
Source: Sklei/Pexels

A notable fact is that older adults fill significant economic needs of society in unpaid work, shouldering more volunteer hours than any other age group as well as providing free childcare to grandchildren with estimates ranging from 25 to 50 percent of grandparents serving as primary caregivers or consistent part-time caregivers.

The World Health Organization points out that “research in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 2011 estimated that, the contributions older people made through taxation, consumer spending, and other economically valuable activities were worth nearly GBP [British pound sterling] 40 billion more than expenditure on them through pensions, welfare, and health care combined.”

Another notable fact is that only a small percentage of individuals develop Alzheimer’s Disease. Contrary to misrepresentations of the onset and incidence of the disease in the mass media, just 1 in 10 adults over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s Disease (Alzheimer’s Association).

At the same time, it has been documented that 1 in 6 adults 60 years and older face elder abuse including financial, physical, and psychological abuse (World Health Organization). These alarming numbers likely reflect underestimates since older adults may be afraid or ashamed to report abuse or unable to report it. Ageism has become a threat to national health.

Ageism can be a threat to anyone’s health. Numerous studies by Becca Levy and colleagues at Yale show that individuals who buy into the negative and inaccurate depictions of older adulthood have worse health and live shorter lives whereas individuals with positive views of aging lived 7.5 years longer. The negative images of older adulthood that are perpetuated through society can be a self-fulfilling prophecy such that individuals adopt the negative image, lead sedentary lifestyles consistent with that image, and thereby suffer declines in overall health and ultimately a shorter lifespan.

Ageism is a huge drain on the economy. Becca Levy and colleagues estimated that ageism experienced by adults 60 years and older in the United States across one year resulted in 17.04 million cases of health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, and Diabetes Mellitus with a 1-year price tag of $63 billion.

All the above data point to the conclusion that ageism is a thing—a big and serious kind of thing.

Accurate information about aging is one of the powerful antidotes for the serious problem of ageism. Yet, there is little education about aging with most secondary schools teaching about the aging process up through puberty and not beyond. Few college students take lifespan courses, even when they are available.

Knowing the facts on aging can reduce anxiety about aging and could translate into a longer lifespan while also reducing ageism and benefiting individuals across the lifespan.

Here’s to 2020—a year of greater awareness of the facts on ageism as well as the facts on aging (along with greater progress on the other critically important matters facing us).

References

Levy, S.R. (2016). Toward reducing ageism: PEACE (Positive Education about Aging and Contact Experiences) Model. The Gerontologist. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnw116 

Levy, S.R., & Apriceno, M.B. (2019). Ageing: The Role of Ageism. OBM Geriatrics, 3(4),19.  doi:10.21926/obm.geriatr.1904083

Levy, S.R., & Macdonald, J.L. (2016). Progress on understanding ageism. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 5-25. doi: 10.1111/josi.12153

Levy, B.R. (2009). Stereotype embodiment: A psychosocial approach to aging. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 332-336. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01662.x–270. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.2.261.

Levy, B. R., Slade, M.D., Chang, E-S., Kannoth, S., & Wang, S-Y. (2018). Ageism Amplifies Cost and Prevalence of Health Conditions. The Gerontologist. doi: 10.1093/geront/gny131.

Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Kunkel, S. R., & Kasl, S. V. (2002). Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 261–270. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.2.261.