Ageism In America: Questions & Answers

August 6, 2012
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ageism“Over the Hill” humor. “Over what hill? Where? When? I don’t remember any hill!”

ageism“Over the Hill” humor. “Over what hill? Where? When? I don’t remember any hill!”

We have all seen novelty products mocking the milestone of turning 50 or older: Anti-aging soap, chattering dentures, and greeting cards mocking memory loss. Most adults chuckle at such age-related humor. But is this type of dismissive comedy a symptom of mainstream society’s bias against older adults and aging?

The number of Americans 65 and older is projected to double over the next three decades to nearly 70 million, comprising 20 percent of the population in 2030 compared to 13 percent now. The U.S. Census projects the population of centenarians (those living +100 years) will exceed 1 million before 2050.

As the oldest baby boomers crest over age 65, ageism aimed against older Americans is seizing national attention.

Now more than ever, it’s time for a shift in our attitudes about aging, longevity, and productivity. Reprioritizing our perceptions may also do our bodies good: Researchers at Yale University found that a positive perception of aging can raise life expectancy by more than 3 and a half years!

Here we bring you the most common questions about Ageism, and answers to enlighten a new era in American thought:

What is ageism?

The presumption that older adults are frail, weak, and disabled permeates society. In 1968, Robert Butler coined the term “ageism” referring to the negative stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice faced by older adults. Ageism can result in mistreatment including negative media images, physical and financial abuse, and workforce discrimination. Health care providers are not immune. Ageist beliefs may harm the provision of appropriate medical and social services to older adults.

How prevalent is ageism?

Studies show over 77% of adults over age 60 report experiencing one or more incidences of ageism.

What are the most commonly reported types of ageist acts?

Displays of disrespect are highest; including being ignored, patronized, and called insulting names. Assumptions about frailty and age causing disability are also frequent.

What are some typical aging stereotypes?

Many view older adults as dependent, depressed, and demented. They are often profiled as unable to maintain employment or use technology. They can be seen as greedy, stubborn, and unable to change.

ageismHow does ageism affect older adults?

Ageism is not only oppressive and humiliating but can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative societal stereotypes can cause older people to view themselves as weak and passive. Studies demonstrate that older adults who possess negative self-stereotypes perform more poorly on memory tasks.

How do ageist attitudes develop?

Aging stereotypes form throughout the lifespan. Children internalize ageist prejudices from the family and cultural environment. As individuals age, these beliefs are reinforced by continued exposure to negative aging stereotypes. Positive aging education should therefore begin as early as possible.

How can ageism affect healthcare training and service delivery?

Aging issues receive little attention by educational institutions: Few graduate programs offer specializations in gerontology, and most textbooks assume a problem/deficit approach rather than focusing on successes in aging. Believing older persons’ cognitive or physical ability is limited may lead healthcare professionals to restrict a client’s freedom, reinforcing a dynamic of dependence.

The good news is you can help fight ageism by giving older adults freedom of choice. Respect seniors’ right to make decisions and gain satisfaction from life, regardless of functional limitations . Older adults need to be actively involved in the process of designing and managing their lives. This includes listening and honoring their lifestyle preferences, living arrangement, and medical choices.

Be an advocate in your field. Whether you are an informal caregiver or a service provider who works with older adults, promote aging education among the people you interact with. Advocate for increased research to examine individual-difference in aging and ways to optimize health and social functioning.

While we can’t stop ageism, we can work to prevent it. What will you do to change ageism, today?