The Problem with “Ageism”

Disabusing Stigmas Series (#2)

“Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). To be more specific, Robert Butler, who coined the term, states that ageism causes the elderly to be “categorized as senile, rigid, and old-fashioned in morality and skills. Ageism allows those of us who are younger to see old people as ‘different.’ We subtly cease to identify with them as human beings, which enables us to feel more comfortable about our neglect and dislike of them”. In reality, it is proven. A survey of 84 people ages 60 and older found that nearly 80 percent of respondents reported experiencing ageism–such as other people assuming they had memory or physical impairments due to their age. Many are unaware of this stigma of seniors and aging individuals. However, we must examine the causes and impacts of ageism and come up with solutions to cope with it.

person's hand in shallow focus

You might wonder why to pay more attention to ageism now? Why wasn’t it a problem decades ago? The main reason that ageism has gained more attention today is due to the steady trend that individuals are reaching an advanced age in greater numbers and better health than ever before in almost every country. In fact, the world’s elderly population will have grown by a factor of 2.5 between 1960 and 2020 according to Health Affairs. This growth is faster than that of the total population. Moreover, “nearly 35 million Americans are over 65 years old, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and that number is expected to double by 2030 to 20 percent of the population.” With their numbers increasing, older adults are becoming actively involved in many aspects of community life. Hence, addressing the needs and issues that elders have is crucial to the welfare of the entire society.

The false prejudices that society holds, such as incapability, put older people at a disadvantage in workplaces. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has reported a more than 24 percent increase in the number of age-discrimination complaints filed this year compared with the previous two years. Employees over the age of 40 are often considered “old” and not offered the same training, promotion opportunities, and pay as younger colleagues. Other manifestations of ageism in workplaces include automatic offering learning opportunities to younger employees, overlooking or passing over older employees for challenging assignments and promotions, and assumptions of lack of commitments. Ageism, incurring unequal treatment and pay in and the prejudice that the elderly can not perform well, is a major contributor to the US’s high elderly poverty rate by causing low payment and unemployment of the elderly. According to the National Council on Aging, “Over 25 million Americans aged 60+ are economically insecure—living at or below 250% of the federal poverty level”. This dire situation for many is the inevitable consequence of the difficulty in getting a well-paid job or even just getting one at all. “Nearly half a million older adults aged 55-64, and 168,000 aged 65+ who wanted to work were unemployed 27 weeks or longer in 2014” (Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], 2015). Hence, many elders struggle to pay for their essential expenses, such as loans, medical expenses, and insurance. They often end up with huge amounts of debt. In fact, the median total debt was $40,900 among senior households according to the Federal Reserve Board’s report in 2013.

grayscale photography of human holding coins

Ageism also occurs frequently in healthcare. According to a nationally representative Health and Retirement Study conducted on 6,017 Americans older than 50, 20% of elders experience discrimination in healthcare settings, and one in 17 experiences it frequently. The detriments of frequent discrimination based on age are drastic and iniquitous. 29% of participants who reported to have experienced frequent healthcare discrimination developed new or worsened disability over four years, compared to just 16.8% of those who infrequently experienced it and 14.7 % who never experienced it. For instance, they can become incapacitated of basic functions, such as walking, feeding, dressing, and bathing, according to Stephanie Rogers, MD, MPAS, MPH, a clinical geriatric fellow at the University of California San Francisco. “Older patients are often viewed by health professionals as set in their ways and unable to change their behavior… Mental health problems–such as cognitive impairment or psychological disorders caused at least in part by complex pharmacological treatments–often go unrecognized and untreated in this growing demographic.” Thus, often older adults are not offered a careful assessment to ascertain good diagnoses. “They may not be offered non-pharmacologic interventions, and any physical issues may take precedence over psychological concerns, with sometimes unfortunate consequences”. Worse, age-based disparities in diagnostic procedures are also prevalent in fields other than psychology. For instance, an England report found that breast cancer occurs much more frequently among older women partially due to the fewer breast cancer screening examinations conducted by their physicians than those of younger women. They are also more likely to be treated pharmacologically rather than surgically, which are the more standardized diagnostic procedures and recommended treatments.

Discrimination against elders causes a shorter lifespan. psychologist Becca Levy, Ph.D., assistant professor of public health at Yale University, found that 50+ elders lived 7.5 years longer when having positive perceptions of aging than those who had negative perceptions. That means by creating pleasurable and fulfilling aging experiences help people to dramatically increase their lives. The professor’s study further supports that “older adults exposed to positive stereotypes have significantly better memory and balance, whereas negative self-perceptions contributed to worse memory and feelings of worthlessness.” Thus, solve stereotypes that stigmatize elders not only allows them to live longer but live a joyful and higher-quality life.

man in red jacket walking on sidewalk with white short coat small dog during daytime

The stigmas of aging are not implanted only after entering senior years. Children, as young as four years old, witness and are allowed to understand discrimination against the elderly. Consequently, the stereotype is gradually and irresistibly ingrained into the young generations, contributing to the difficulties of eradicating the problems of ageism. By the time they enter schools many are more than likely have developed negative attitudes toward some older adults and these prejudices are resistant to changes. Therefore, it is imperative that parents, schools, and social influencers to change their previous biased behaviors toward aging and older individuals. It is also important that social platforms realize the huge impacts that they can have among future generations and pay close attention to contents that feed into ageism.

Ageism is a discrimination and social stigma that is no less harmful to our society than sexism and racism. It calls for urgent addressing, which requires the collective efforts of the local and federal government, as well as every single citizen. Some progress has been made. The US’s 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits employment discrimination against people aged 40 years and older. The abolishment of mandatory retirement ages opens up more opportunities for the elderly to sustain themselves. Also, the call for Geriatricians, who are medical doctors who specialize in treating older adults, and specialized senior healthcare hospitals are rising in recent years. Japan even invented an interactive, therapeutic robotic seal to help provide care to elderly residents in nursing homes. The baby-seal-looking robots have sensors that pick up on touch, light, sound, heat, and posture. The purpose is to alleviate loneliness and to enrich the lives of elders.

In light of this progress, ageism continues to prevail and undermine society and individuals’ subject well-being. Without more pressing enforcement and specific policies being executed to address it, more elders, including you and I someday in the future, will fall victim to this discrimination of age.

Hands, Old, Young, Holding, Caring


Checkout other Disabusing Stigmas Series:
 - Say "NO" to Fat Stigma (#1)


  1. Tikno says:

    That is an impressive statistical numbers.
    However as I’m getting older, I felt like there is a shift in value between the time of my childhood and the present digital age. Like the social value between traditional village and metropolitan.

    Liked by 1 person

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