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The Age of Ageism

by Sarah McKiddy, UW School of Nursing de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging Predoctoral Scholar

This article is a part of a series on ageism, completed by de Tornyay Center predoctoral scholar, Sarah McKiddy. Find accompanying interviews on ageism here

According to the World Health Organization, ageism decreases an individual’s lifespan by 7.5 years. Ageism involves stereotypes, prejudices, or discrimination based on age. Ageism can occur at different levels: self-directed (internalized), interpersonal (between individuals), and institutional (policies, laws, and protocols). From an early age, we pick up cues from those around us about stereotypes, which are reaffirmed through our culture’s norms.

Negative expectations of aging can cause individuals to not participate in exercise classes or do social activities because they think they are too old and might hurt themselves, or because they do not see examples of other older adults doing those activities. This can lead to worsened physical and mental health.

Ageism also happens between people, in comments, conversation, or actions. Telling a 70-year-old, “You look young for your age,” suggests that you should look a certain way at 70. “Let me help you with that, dear,” employs “Elderspeak”, a patronizing form of speaking, that can involve talking louder or slower, using pet names, or speaking to adults like they are a child. It might seem nice or helpful, but it is based on stereotypes. It assumes the older adult needs help or is not capable. Other times ageism is blunt: “Boomers are out of touch with my generation,”, or “They are just like every other millennial: entitled and coddled.” This mentality is also seen in narratives of increased healthcare use and associated burden.

Workplace ageism is one of many other forms of ageism. It is assuming someone is too old or young to fulfill their job duties and is very common. A recent 2022 AARP study revealed that approximately one-third of older adults in the labor force reported hearing negative comments in the workplace related to a co-worker’s age in the last two years. In a 2022 AARP interview, Jennifer Schramm, senior policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute, said that age discrimination continues to be one of the leading drivers of long-term unemployment for individuals 50 years and greater.

Ageism can also affect the health of individuals because it determines age as the leading factor in someone’s choices. When clinicians neglect to ask about an older adult’s sexual life or substance use due to ageist notions, it can result in delayed care, missed treatment opportunities, and missed diagnoses. Focusing only on age can also cause people to overlook other crucial factors like stress and one’s environment that might better explain health issues.

Age discrimination can compound other barriers related to things like race/ethnicity, income, health status, sexual orientation, gender, and disability. An individual’s ability to age and maintain a high quality of life relies on access to healthcare, social support, housing, and financial security. A 2021 study published in the Lancet pointed to evidence that older adults from racial/ethnic minority groups frequently had a worse quality of life due to chronic conditions and stress from adapting to a new culture.

Ageism is complex, and it can be overwhelming to think about how to solve it. Here are three practical ways to address ageism: First, self-reflect on what words you choose. Are you selecting terms that feed into stereotypes? Next, when someone uses a word like “elderly” or a phrase like “past one’s prime,” ask why they chose to describe someone this way and discuss what the implications are. Lastly, seek opportunities to socialize and interact with people of different ages from your own. Aging is a collective and shared journey that can connect us all. We all have a stake in how we contribute to the messaging surrounding aging. It is time to outgrow ageism.