Ageism Hurts But You Can Fight Back

Anyone over a certain age has felt ageism. The young sales clerk who hardly says anything when you make a purchase. The condescension when you ask a question about something technical. The uncomfortable feeling when introducing yourself when you no longer have a work title. We have all felt it. Negative stereotypes and attitudes about age are everywhere from simple everyday interactions to the way older people are portrayed on television. An older person is considered somehow less when ageism is in play.

Unfortunately those of us who are older face age discrimination and prejudice daily. As with any form of discrimination, stereotypes are the primary culprit. Ageist stereotypes are those nasty (in most cases) bundles of characteristics presumed to be the definitive elements of being old. They are almost always present when we experience true discrimination, which is inappropriate and potentially unfair treatment.

Younger peoplenote 1 who hold negative stereotypes about older people will treat everyone perceived as old as if they fit these stereotypes. This can happen in the workplace, in casual conversation, or just about anywhere. In the workplace an older person may have a harder time getting a job or a promotion and may be paid less than a younger employee.

Younger people may have the idea that once you reach a certain age your opinion is of no value and you aren’t capable of learning new ideas. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is one of the dreariest assumptions about aging. I read an interview the other day that shared the opinions of an articulate, savvy young woman. She was talking politics and suggested the idea that there should be a maximum age allowed for voting. Her argument was that as people get older they are no longer capable of thinking about the future.

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Businesses make assumptions that their customers are young. Restaurants print menus in small type with light letters on a dark background or with light gray type. The menu may look nice to those who can see it but in the subdued lighting of the restaurant they are difficult to read.

Some of the worst people who promote ageism are older people themselves. How many times have you heard an older person who can’t remember something say they are having a “senior moment”? Or have you ever heard someone asked to take on a new task or learn something new respond with, “I could never do that, I am too old”?

The number of jokes about aging and older people seem endless. Perhaps you have a friend who sends you ageist jokes in emails. Sometimes they are actually funny but they are insidious. The negative messages creep into our subconscious mind and grow there. Over time we start to believe these negative statements that older people are odd, cranky, demanding, forgetful or some other negative, yet initially funny meme. It is better to delete these messages without reading them and definitely before passing them along.

Links to the all-in caregiving site and amazon page to buy book all-in caregiving by Christine Klotz

When an older person thinks about themselves as old, they start to think they are bumbling, forgetful, ugly, stuck in old ways of thinking and doing. They use these thoughts to justify hanging onto old attitudes and behaviors. It is just so much easier to continue to do things the way you have always done them.

Consider these behaviors that just continue old patterns when new ones work better:

  • Printing out email messages because the person thinks they will be lost if saved on a computer. Or, perhaps the person doesn’t know how to make a folder to save the email. Rather than asking someone to show them how to do this the person stays devoted to paper. Paper which, by the way, is easily misplaced.
  • Continuing to use plastic grocery bags rather than bringing reusable bags to shop. (Some states have put in place laws to eliminate plastic bags). The person may be concerned about all of the plastic bags in the ocean but thinks what can one person do? Keeping re-usable grocery bags in the car, or someplace easy to remember, can become a new habit in no time.
  • Continuing to drive everywhere even after doctors have warned the person that their eyesight is diminished and has recommended that they limit their driving. Asking for a ride may be hard at first but others are surprisingly willing to give a lift to a congested traffic area or for something that requires being out after dark.
  • Not exercising because something might hurt or maybe thinking exercise will cause a fall. In truth, exercise is one of the best ways to stay healthy and reduce falls. Exercise more, up to a natural limit, and you move better. Move better and you are less likely to trigger the stereotype of the doddering old geezer.
  • Not joining a club or organization because the person thinks the club wouldn’t welcome someone your age. Social interaction helps maintain health. Making a new friend also means there are new ears to hear some favorite life stories. And if it is a group doing something of value this can give a new sense of purpose.

There are many more examples. I am sure you can think of some in your own life. Times when you or your aging parents decide they don’t need to change, or they resist learning something new because they are old.

Negative attitudes about aging can be harmful. When an individual feels the impact of ageist attitudes they tend to become either withdrawn or angry.

Negative self perception about aging can lead to problems with memory, contribute to hearing loss, and lead to earlier problems with heart and circulatory illness.

These negative attitudes about aging can also infiltrate health care services. Doctors and nurses may just accept complaints expressed by older patients as normal aging when they are problems that could and should be treated. The achy knee after a daily two mile walk is not just normal aging. Even worse, doctors who don’t know their patients very well may prescribe treatments that can have serious consequences. Do not automatically assume that professionals maintain a professional attitude toward older people. There are plenty of ageist health professions as in any other professional area.

When an otherwise healthy active older adult is in the hospital for some reason the hospital staff may just see an older person in a bed and make assumptions about that person’s life and abilities. People are living longer, healthier lives able to continue being active far longer than previous generations. But some medical professionals haven’t learned this yet. They see behaviors in the hospital, perhaps confusion in the emergency room, and make assumptions that the person is just old and can’t make their own decisions or manage on their own.

Strange as it may seem, older people tend to be happier than middle-aged people. Truth is the majority of today’s older population are active and self-sufficient. Many volunteer hundreds of hours in the community. Even attitudes about death are often not as disturbing for older adults. The older the person is, generally speaking, the more comfortable they are likely to be with the subject of dying. Perhaps it is this realization that allows older people to relax and enjoy life a bit more.

As long as we’re talking about attitude, keep in mind that a more positive attitude about aging will add around seven-and-a-half years to your life.

When people do not have a positive attitude about aging they will go to the doctor for preventive screenings less frequently, even avoiding vaccinations that could prevent illnesses like flu and pneumonia. They tend to think everything they face from achy joints to trouble breathing is all caused by aging and there is nothing to be done.

On the other hand someone with a more positive attitude about aging is more likely to take better care of themselves. After illness they heal and recover faster and more completely. Their functional abilities are better. Attitudes, memory, and mental outlook are also better.

While you were reading the foregoing you probably thought of ways you can ward off and in some cases deal with ageism in your daily experience. Here are some more actions for you to consider:

  1. You can work on your own attitudes first. Stop yourself every time you think or say something that excuses behavior and attitude because of age. It is possible you can no longer do something because you no longer have the strength or dexterity. But avoid automatically blaming age for every little decrement in your abilities.
  2. Call out ageist behaviors when you see them. When you go into a restaurant with loud music that makes conversation virtually impossible, ask them to turn it down. When you see a sign in the gym that implies exercise is only for the young, complain.
  3. Learn something new and encourage anyone you know who is older to do the same.
  4. Focus on what you can do, not what you can no longer do. If you need a cane or walker to continue being active, use it.
  5. Set a good example for younger people in your life. Demonstrate that a person who is older is still a person of value. Pay attention to and learn from the changes in your community and society. Demonstrate you still take care of yourself. Demonstrate concern about the world around you and continue to contribute to the community.

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