A paradox is underway among older adults and modern society. The Baby Boomer population is growing exponentially with every passing year, they’re living longer lives full of vitality and good health, and they’re staying in the workplace longer.
But they feel less and less visible to the rest of society.
What’s to blame for this juxtaposition of vitality and irrelevance? Ageism.
Ageism was defined in 1968 by Robert N. Butler, MD, a gerontologist, psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who coined the term as the basic denial of older people’s human rights. Butler later defined it as “a process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old.”
Geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas expands on the concept in the documentary, “The Roots and Consequences of Ageism in America:”
“Our society holds up very young and inexperienced people as being the paragons of virtue and strength and idealizes them while setting aside real elders with real lived experience making them virtually invisible.”
Our society holds up very young and inexperienced people as being the paragons of virtue and strength and idealizes them while setting aside real elders with real lived experience making them virtually invisible.
Apart from just the emotional impacts of ageism, it’s also expensive: Practically speaking, it costs the U.S. health care system, on average, at least $63 billion a year. Moreover, it contributes to significant mental health issues in older adults and is a leading risk for suicide in this age group.
Ageism in the U.S.
In many cultures, age is revered, respected and cherished.
The U.S. does not trend as such.
Cross-cultural research on societal ageism finds that the U.S. lands among the top five most ageist countries on the globe, with the U.K. at number one.
“In our society, there is this endless drumbeat of youth,” said Ashton Applewhite, author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.” “We need to challenge the underlying message that age decreases your value.”
Why are we so ageist?
Ageism has many complex underpinnings. Leading research into the antecedents of ageism points to fear as the underlying cause—specifically, fear of death and dying.
Terror Management Theory (TMT) refers to the impact that death anxiety has on people’s social behavior. In very simple terms, TMT states that our cultural worldviews and self-esteem create a psychological buffer that protects us from the overwhelming fear of the knowledge of our inevitable death; without this buffer, we’d be incapacitated. Social in-groups (i.e., young people vs. old people) are considered part of a cultural worldview.
The theory goes that we do things to strengthen our buffers when we’re reminded of death—showing downright aggression towards out-groups while embracing stereotypical thinking.
So, when applied to ageism, TMT states that older adults remind young people of death, and therefore young people engage in ageist thoughts and behaviors in an effort to cope with the threat of death.
What we can do to combat ageism
Ageism is common, but it doesn’t need to be inevitable. We can reverse the trend:
Don’t keep conversations superficial just because you don’t think an older adult will understand or you assume it will be too hard to explain the latest trend or the modern technology you’re using to the “old folks.”
Don’t talk to older adults like they’re children (i.e., slow, loud and deliberate); it’s very likely they can hear you just fine. Only about one-quarter of adults are hearing-impaired.
Watch what you say
Avoid certain words and phrases when speaking to and about older adults:
- “He looks good for his age”
- “Despite her age….”
- “Even older adults can…”
- “…is active even at that age.”
If you see something, say something
More than ever, people are challenging each other to rethink and examine their own biases. Don’t hesitate to call someone out if they make an ageist remark. It might even spark a discussion!
What you can do as a caregiver to help your loved one
Unfortunately, many older adults have taken ageist stereotyping to heart.
For example, the 2020 National Poll on Healthy Aging showed that more than one-third of older adult respondents agreed or strongly agreed that feeling lonely or depressed were inherent parts of growing older—evidence they had “internalized society’s ageist stereotypes.” Not surprisingly, the report went on to report these adults were more likely to suffer from mental health issues.
Older adults who have positive self-perceptions of aging are not only happier but actually live longer.
So, if your loved one has negative views about aging, it’s imperative to do your best to upend that unhelpful sentiment.
- Let independence lead: Always try to let your loved one accomplish as much as they can independently. You may be surprised to find you are underestimating their ability to perform certain tasks.
- Remember who they are to you: When roles reverse, it’s easy to get caught up in the “caretaking” but slightly lose the emphasis on the “caring.” Always offer the respect and kindness they deserve. When you do, you improve their outlook on life and mental health.
- Encourage intergenerational contact: Find ways for your loved one to be an “elder” or “mentor” to a younger person. Help break barriers and dispel stereotypes, and give your loved one the opportunity to share their hard-earned wisdom.