Changing the Conversation: Ageism

June 27, 2017

Free samples allure us often; it might be down the Costco aisle, a popular television commercial, an ad on social media, or at popular events. At a recent fair I attended, I received a free sample of “anti-aging” products, along with other older adults, who were hooked by the spiel. Normally I would have declined, but got caught up in the conversation of “reducing wrinkles” and the challenge to accept and try the product. I currently write this article with swollen eyes and aversion to not staying committed to the candor of ageism.

According to the FrameWorks Institute, “Ageism is discrimination against older people due to negative and inaccurate stereotypes” (FrameWorks Institute, 2017).

In 2001 a survey by Duke University’s Erdman Palmore, PhD, it was revealed that the most frequent type of ageism–reported by 58 percent of respondents–was being told a joke that pokes fun at older people. Thirty-one percent reported being ignored or not taken seriously because of their age. The study appeared in The Gerontologist (Vol. 41, No. 5). It is 2017 and the only change has been the increased population of older adults.

As a gerontologist, care manager, and educator in the field of aging, I’m constantly aware of the negative messages and images that have been accepted and become a norm in our society. Ageist comments can be subtle or even well-intentioned such as addressing an older woman as “young lady” or using terms such as “sweetie, honey, and hon.” First, we know we aren’t young, and second, unless you know the person personally, they are not your hon, sweetie, or honey. These are derogatory terms and demeaning to older adults. Recently, I had this conversation with a medical assistant during a visit with my husband to see his doctor. She greeted him with “hi hon, how are you doing today?” I asked if she greeted all the clients that way and she said the “older men liked it.” I haven’t decided if they are placating or think it makes the older adult feel better because they are older.

Ageism is evident in the barrage of commercials for older adults that need help – it used to be “The Clapper: Clap on! Clap off!” or “Help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” medical alert, to the more updated “lack of sexual energy” and Depends adult diapers. It is evident in the multimillion dollar anti-aging products and surgeries, which subtlety suggest that by buying these expensive products and services, we can erase the visible indicators of aging. This phenomenon has morphed into other areas. Older people are treated differently by doctors with the common phrase “You’re aging” or “It is a part of aging.” Its presence is felt in the workplace with bias towards the older adult’s ability to adapt, learn technology, productivity, and retirement policies. Sadly, it is seen in younger people who discriminate against their own imminent aging self.

I realized that I had entered this discrimination arena when I went to buy a pair of running shoes. I had previously looked at shoes and couldn’t decide, so when I went back the young sales rep got frustrated at my inability to recall the exact name of the shoe. He asked the manager of the store, who shrugged me off and both nonverbally decided I didn’t know what I was talking about and walked into the back of the storeroom. I had witnessed this when I would take my mother-in-law shopping for specific items like a computer or TV. So I boldly explained that I might not look like your “runner,” but I was running marathons before they were born or in diapers. I also informed them that I had completed 16 marathons and countless 5k and 10k runs and that I would take my money to a quality store that doesn’t practice ageism. As I walked out the door, I knew I hadn’t made a difference and they didn’t care.

There is gaining momentum among eight leading aging organizations (LAOs) to reframe public perceptions and reduce the stigma of aging. These LAOs include AARP, American Federation for Aging Research, American Geriatrics Society, Gerontological Society of Aging, Grantmakers in Aging, National Council on Aging, and the National Hispanic Council. The FrameWorks Institute along with the above advocates for aging are “framing strategies to advance aging and address ageism as policy issues.”

We, the older Americans, must rally and change the conversation and communication as it relates not only to our current quality of life, but to our future “aging” youth. Unlike the “isms” of color and gender, we can change the “ism” of aging, as it includes everyone. FrameWorks suggests ideas to help change our perceptions. Consider “As we get older, we gain momentum, with the force of built-up experience and wisdom,” “Our society is not treating older people as equals, but instead are marginalizing their participation and minimizing their contributions.” Try the following change ideas: talking affirmatively about changing. e.g., “As Americans live longer and healthier lives,” “Let’s find creative solutions to ensure we can all thrive as we age,” use more neutral and inclusive terms, e.g., “older people/Americans and “we” and “us.”

We worry about aging, fear of losing independence, self of loss due to chronic illness/falls, hospitalization, cognitive impairment, loss of family/friends, and ultimately fear of death. However as a society we can lessen the stereotyping of older people through civic and community lifestyles by supporting greater health and well-being and intergenerational social engagement. We all must confront ageism by accepting our bodies will age and change and validating aging as a meaningful time of life.

—Deon Batchelder, MS, CMC

Deon BatchelderDeon is a Certified Care Manager and the Clinical Supervisor for Elder Options, Inc. She brings a wealth of knowledge about POLST, Parkinson’s disease, VA benefits, and entitlement and waiver programs to the Elder Options team. Deon’s passion for care management grew from a commitment to advocate and support older adults, disabled, and vulnerable populations.

FrameWorks Institute (2017). Washington, DC.
AARP (2017). Public Policy Institute.

Categories: Healthy Living