Dr. Robert Butler, first director of the National Institute on Aging, coined the term “ageism” in 1989. It refers to stereotypes of and discrimination against older people. Ageism can lead to myths about older people and the aging process. I often ask students at the beginning of my gerontology course to describe older adults and the aging process in a few words. They describe them as frail, sick, dependent, mentally slow and a burden to society. They see old age as a time of loss of autonomy, sickness and death.
Here are some ways we can change society’s negative attitudes towards aging:
1. Challenge our ageist self-talk
A first step is to become aware of our internalized ageist messages and work to overcome them. Kathleen McInnis-Dittrich of the Boston College Graduate School of Work explains that these attitudes often begin in childhood when parents make subtle comments such as “I hope I don’t become forgetful like grandma” or “I don’t have as much energy as I used to, I must be getting old.” Such comments plant the seeds that aging is a time of deterioration. It gets reinforced as we age and use ageist expressions such as “I’m having a senior moment” when we forget things. This popular term contributes to the negative stereotypes of older adults. Reducing ageism begins by examining our own biases and catching ourselves when we make ageist comments.
Reducing ageism begins by examining our own biases and catching ourselves when we make ageist comments.
2. Commit to education about aging
In his book, Issues in Aging, professor Mark Novak suggests that education about aging leads to a more positive view of later life. In fact, students who take gerontology courses have more balanced and accurate views.
It’s rewarding to hear from my students that after one semester they have a better understanding of the aging process and diversity among older people. They say that it also helps them to understand their own family members’ lives and influences their career choices. Up until this point, they didn’t consider working with older adults because they believed they suffered from chronic illnesses, dementia and losses. However, they quickly learned to counter negative stereotypes and see older adults, especially family members with chronic illnesses and disabilities as adaptive and contributors rather than fragile victims. Their most important learning is the diversity of aging experiences – older adults vary in their age, health and cognitive status, education and economic status, living arrangements, family structures, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and lifestyle choices.
3. Foster positive interaction between older and younger people
When we have satisfying personal contact with older adults, it can decrease negative stereotypes. For example, grandparents and their grandchildren are communicating online through e-mails, Skype and Facebook. One of my clients, an 85-year-old woman learned to use the computer after her granddaughter moved to Europe and she wanted to stay in touch with her through email. When her granddaughter told her friends that her grandmother was using the Internet, they were surprised because of her advanced age. In so doing, she dispelled the myth that older people are incapable of learning the technology. In some communities,younger people are tutoring older adults in the use of computers and mobile devices.
Intergenerational activities discourage ageism by providing opportunities for older adults and younger people to interact and learn from each other, thus fostering mutual respect and positive attitudes. This is especially relevant for students who have no grandparents as role models. Examples of intergenerational programs include: preschools in residences for older people, high school and university projects whereby students interview older people, older people mentor students and help with homework, and social action projects such as gardening and environmental activism.
In some schools, teens earn credits for community service by participating in intergenerational programs. A student in one of my programs was so enriched by this experience that she decided to volunteer after her placement ended. Toronto Intergenerational Partnerships has been bringing generations together since 1986. They list the benefits to each generation on their website.
4. Support anti-discriminatory legislation
Ageism can be fought through legislation. The Ontario Human Rights Commission protects people from age discrimination. Although it doesn’t end discriminatory acts, it provides protection in the workplace, housing and services.
5. Demand new images of aging
Change is on the horizon and Baby Boomers are reshaping society’s ideas about aging. Novak says that magazine articles and advertisements are taking a more positive view of this population which is more educated, has financial resources and is in better health than past generations of older people. They are active, resourceful and more assertive in advocating for change and finding resources to meet their needs.
The corporate world is also paying attention. Mass media, retail, insurance, investment and travel companies are marketing goods and services to the needs and desires of Baby Boomers. For example, Helen Mirren, 72, is the face of l’Oreal’s Age Perfect Moisturizer and Canada Post features older people in its advertisements.
Positive roles models play a role in changing perceptions. Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand and the Rolling Stones, all over 70, continue to make albums and tour the world, attracting large audiences of all ages to their concerts. This image of aging rejects the notion that aging is a time of decline.
Novak believes that accepting aging as a normal part of life will help end ageism in the future. He refers to an “age-irrelevant society” that judges people by who they are and what they contribute, rather than their age. Each of us can play a role to produce a more balanced and positive view of aging. Think about what you can do in your everyday life to take charge and end ageism.
Myra Giberovitch is an educator, author, professional speaker and mentor. She is adjunct professor, McGill University School of Social Work and author of Recovering from Genocidal Trauma. Watch her speak at TedxMontreal – Genocide Survivors: Contributors Not Victims.