We are all familiar with racism and sexism – but what about “ageism?” “Ageism” was first defined by Dr. Robert Butler in 1968 as “a systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old.”
Social scientists agree that when we meet new people, we automatically first look for three things – race, gender, and age. People do this to mentally categorize and define others. When describing people, there is a tendency to focus on gender, age, and race as well.
We know that discrimination and bias about race and gender are generally not tolerated. If people tell a racial joke or make fun of a woman because she is a woman, they are generally not accepted and people will say “that is not funny.” But jokes about age? Well, for some reason, our society has not placed a taboo on this particular type of prejudice. We see birthday cards poking fun at older people and it is generally accepted to see television shows depicting older people in a negative and stereotypical manner.
Ageism in Society
What are the common stereotypes? Here are just a few things that are generalized to people who are older:
- Can’t remember things
- Cannot see or hear well
- Must be physically frail or weak
- Are inflexible and stubborn
- Cannot learn new things
- Must be interested in retiring
- Must not be capable of using technology
A recent AARP study reveals that 1/3 of Massachusettes residents either have experienced ageism or know of someone who has. The most common experience (58%) is hearing a joke about or being the butt of a joke about advanced age. But, discrimination comes in many forms.
A social scientist who has been studying age discrimination, Becca Levy, recently examined facebook pages set up specifically focusing on old age and found extremely negative views of aging going so far as to advocate killing off those over 69 in a firing squad. This type of negativity is not being banned by facebook and has many members enjoying these social media groups. Facebook has a policy to ban hate-speech regarding groups of people – but aging people are not counted among them.
Oddly, age is the only “ism” that we will all (if we are lucky) potentially experience. Few men become women! Few change their race! But, we will all get older!
Age Discrimination at Work
The form of ageism that can be most difficult for seniors who are still working is discrimination in the workplace. The federal government officially made it harder to discriminate against workers over 40 in 1967 and new bills are being introduced like the “Protecing Older Workers Against Discrimination Act.” But, despite these efforts, the facts indicate that discrimination may still be at play. Older workers over 45 are employed well, but if they become unemployed or laid off, they have a much harder time finding new work than younger workers.
Fortunatly, with the large number of boomers dealing with these types of issues, there are also advocacy groups gaining strength like AARP and information sources to help those pursuing mid-life or older career changes. The reality is older people often have major benefits such as experience, wisdom, emotional resilience, perspective, talent, and time that younger counterparts do not possess.
Age Discrimination in Health Care
Even though aging is a risk factor in many diseases and older people have more chronic conditions, research dollars tend to focus on younger responses to treatments and drug trials. Studies have also shown that facilities designed for elderly people are less likely to meet basic standards and more likely to be understaffed. In treating patients in ICU, younger patients are given more aggressive treatments to save functioning and life than older patients. And screenings for things like breast cancer are targeted for younger patients even though more women over 65 will actually have breast cancer.
Medications are often not tested on seniors and can have very different impacts for older people than intended. It is wise to check for medications that can be a problem for older people.
Becca Levy also studied self-perception of aging and found that those with positive views of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those who had negative views of aging. The positive agers also had less disability. So, can our society’s negativity toward age and obsession with youth actually impact real health status? It is the power of positive thinking showing real results. If aging people view age favorably, they may stay healthy longer.
Check a long-term care facility out and make sure that it meets minimum standards.
What to Do About Age Discrimination
The first thing to take away from this is to start viewing age positively for yourself and for those around you. By focusing on the positive aspects of aging and viewing your own aging positively, you can not only help those around you, but also improve your chances for good health. If a doctor does not seem aware of how a medication may impact an older person or seems to be not working aggressively enough to find a cure for you or a loved one – speak up and/or find a second opinion or do some research on your own. When you hear someone make fun of aging people, speak up. And if there is a real discrimination at work or elsewhere, know your rights! If you feel that you have a serious complaint, speak to a lawyer. There are many law firms that will meet with you for a small or reduced fee in an initial session to help you understand your options. The sheer number of boomers "coming of age" may be enough to combat ageism – but there is still a long way to go.