Ageism is becoming one of the most significant social problems in the 21st century. The news media are littered with messages about the aging population being a “burden” on society and the economy. Older people are increasingly portrayed as a problem that needs to be solved. Ageism reveals some of the darkest elements in the human condition.
What is Ageism?
Ageism is a form of discrimination against older people because of their age. An ageist is a person who has prejudicial views about aging, and especially old age.
No greater misery can of age be told
Than this: be sure, the young dislike the old.
It is important to note that ageism can happen at any age, young or old. However, ageism most commonly refers to discrimination against older people. It embraces the virulent belief that older persons are less worthy, competent, and lower in status.
The term ageism was coined in 1969 by gerontologist Dr. Robert Butler (1927-2010). He founded the
The International Longevity Center at Columbia University. Dr. Butler described ageism as a form of prejudice that, “allows the younger generations to see older people as different as themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.”
Through his Anti-Ageism Taskforce, Dr. Butler authored a cornerstone publication about ageism called, Ageism in America. At the heart of a forms of prejudice and discrimination is fear. Butler identifies the fear of death and advanced aging as being the source of ageism:
Ageism existed long before it was given its name. Fear of and distaste for growing old are inherent in the human experience. They are not fully accounted for by fear of death. With aging comes the prospect of a decline in functions such as memory, sexuality, and mobility, as well as the occurrence of age-related diseases. The fear of deterioration, dementia, and dependency is powerful.
Ageism is a failure to have a courageous conversation about the unavoidable realities of everyday life. We turn away from our elderly because of our own internal fears and insecurities about advanced aging and death. It is easy to be an armchair voyeur of violence and tragedy in the media, because we are hiding behind a protective barrier. Death and aging, however, are absolute certainties.
There are various seasons in aging. In our youth, aging is a process of growing up and moving out into the world. We feel as though there is a lot of time ahead of us. In this season of life, aging leads toward independence and self-sufficiency.
In the last third of life, aging is a process of growing old and withdrawing from the world. We feel as though there is more time behind us now. In this season of life, aging is a process of deterioration that we cannot escape.
What was once ahead of us, we suddenly find behind us.
The Extent of Ageism
How extensive is the problem of ageism?
In the Revera Report on Ageism, the extent of the problem already appears to be quite substantial:
- 71 percent of Canadians surveyed stated that older people are less valued in society.
- 60 percent of seniors age 66 and older reported that they had personally experienced age-based discrimination.
- 20 percent of those surveyed actually stated that older Canadians constitute a burden on society.
In Watch ‘Em Die Dr. Bill Thomas describes an shocking situation in which an elderly person was ignored and left to die:
I understand that there could be mitigating circumstances in this case but the heartlessness with which the facility’s nurse prioritized facility policy above the life of a person reveals all too much about the dark underbelly of ageism in America.
Human warehousing is a term that is used to describe the inhumane treatment of the elderly in institutions. We are trying to render the truth about aging invisible. We hide it out of plain sight. We visit it only when we must, and not for long.
In my own experiences in being a caregiver for my parents, it became quickly apparent to me that policy does in fact retain a higher priority than the quality of a human life.
Germany exports its elderly to other countries. Japan’s Finance Minister has asked the elderly to hurry up and die. The elderly are being commoditized and exported as a human life has become an item of trade and commerce.
The extent of ageism in the world is already extensive, and as we move deeper into the baby boomer population wave it is poised to become a plague in the human condition.
The Faces of Ageism
The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines ageism as a tendency to structure society based on an assumption that everyone is young, thereby failing to respond appropriately to the real needs of older persons. In this sense, ageism is a direct extension of our obsession with youth, or more accurately, the facade of youth.
Dr. Butler identified four faces of ageism:
- Personal Ageism: Prejudice and discrimination against the elderly by a single individual.
- Making prejudicial comments about an older person
- Ignoring the needs of an elderly person
- Framing a senior as an inconvenience or burden
- Institutional Ageism: Organizational procedures and practices that discriminate against seniors.
- Placing policy ahead of human needs
- Treating older persons as a liability (e.g. – funding a pension
- Forced retirement policies
- Intentional Ageism: Conscious discrimination against seniors.
- Use of ageist terms – over the hill, sweet old lady, old man, geezer, bed blocker
- Use of ageist ideas – “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks”
- Denial of opportunities in the workforce on the basis of age
- Unintentional Ageism: Unconscious discrimination against seniors.
- Lack of accessibility in public spaces
- Misguided uses of language
- Health Care
- Emergency Services
- Nursing Homes
- Government Policies
- Corporate Policies
- The Media
- The Workplace
- Marketing and Advertising
- The Commercial Anti-Aging Movement
- Movies and Entertainment
Discrimination against seniors is found in many aspects of society including:
The dynamics of ageism are complex and pervasive. Though not strictly confined to the elderly, a hospice embraces respect for the elderly near the end of life. Perhaps these organizations will also be sources of change in the fight against ageism.
The Dark Underbelly of Ageism
Ageism thrives on weakness of character.
All forms of prejudice or discrimination originate in fear, weakness, and ignorance. People who harbour prejudice and discrimination toward others are fearful, weak, and ignorant people who suffer from a dramatic failure of character.
Ageism is a form of self-deception, and a denial of the truth.
When we say that someone is “old,” what do we really mean by this? What kind of things are in our minds when we categorize someone as being old? What is our real intention in making a statement such as this?
It is unfortunate to hear the word “old” being used as backhanded insult designed to make an individual feel less intelligent, able, or worthy. In other words, calling someone “old” is sometimes a criticism. This is delusional thinking that originates in an uncultivated mind. Sadly, it is usually a younger and insecure person that is responsible for the injury.
Our culture embraces a cult of youth; everything that is not youthful needs to maintain a facade of youth. The cult of youth and its obsession with youthful appearances reveals a deeply rooted ugliness in society, and is a primary source of ageism.
In other words, we are required to lie to ourselves.
Aging is a phenomenon that is innate to every life form that inevitably and irreversibly leads to death. This universal consequence of all aging is perhaps a primary course of fear and avoidance; death and dying can inspire fear about growing old.
Senescence makes a hostage out of each one of us.
Exposing the Problem
Awareness is always the first step in overcoming a problem.
Exposing the dynamics of ageism is an important task because it helps to fully expose an enemy. The first task in combating ageism is to expose it for what it really is. We have to know what we are up against before we can plan to overcome it.
Ageism is fundamentally a form of weakness and insecurity.
All ageism originates in our personal and collective fears, insecurities, and anxieties. Our choice is to understand and move through our fears in order to build better world, or to submit to our fears and remain mired in our insecurities.
Ageism means facing our own fears.