Regardless of our race, culture, or gender, aging is something we all share. Yet despite our commonality, prejudices toward older adults are rampant. Ageism, or the discrimination against people because of their age, is nothing new. In fact, as far back as the 1st century A.D., Roman philosopher Seneca observed “Senectus morbidus est,” or “Old age is a disease.”
Ageism is noted as the last socially acceptable “ism” out there. While society has become intolerant of sexism and racism, there is little backlash against ageism as its affects weigh heavy on an older adult’s morale and health itself.
Unfortunately, ageism is systemic and ingrained in our culture, language, and mindset from an early age and reinforced over our lifetimes. Ageism is everywhere, it’s accepted, and it is rarely confronted.
Feeding the fire is the media’s marginalizing of older adults and the public’s own collectivism of stereotypes. Many equate growing older with mental and physical decline. From countless internet memes and daily conversations to TV shows, movies, advertising, and in the workplace, older adults are portrayed as slow, frail, forgetful, unproductive, and a dependent group that needs to be taken care of at the expense of others.
Derogatory labels that suggest limitations like “senior citizens” and “the elderly” are commonly placed upon older adults with little thought to their stinging effects. At the same time, billions of dollars are spent on “anti-aging” products. Can you imagine the public outcry if the word anti were to be placed before any other group, race, religion, or gender?
Over the Hill vs. Moving the Mountain
Many older adults well into their 80s and even their 90s are active and engaged, self-sufficient and talented, and contributing greatly to our society.
Older adults create, compose, and invent. They exercise and learn new languages. They forge new lasting relationships. They are becoming more and more tech-savvy. They volunteer and mentor, get involved in activism and help shape public policy.
Older adults are one of our nation’s greatest, untapped natural resources and offer a wealth of life experience and invaluable knowledge that they are eager to share. It’s time we recognized their value and find ways to utilize their skills instead of diminishing their contributions and opportunities.
Positive Message, Positive Outcomes
Ageism is complex. Yet if we begin to approach aging as a time for growth and potential, we will not only see a positive change in our society, but also a positive impact on the health of older adults.
According to a study by psychologist Becca Levy, Ph.D., assistant professor of public health at Yale University, those with more positive self-perceptions of aging live 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions.
At the same time, she found that older adults exposed to positive aging messages have more strength, better balance, are more likely to bounce back from injury or illness, and have a lower risk of cardiac disease and signs of memory loss.
The Time to Tackle Ageism is Now
No one should be kept from opportunity or from realizing his or her full potential because of his or her age. And while there are organizations, businesses, and policymakers that are taking up the fight against ageism, it’s not enough.
An enormous segment of our population, baby boomers are aging at a rapid rate. Nearly 35 million Americans are over 65 years old, and that figure should double by 2030 to 20 percent of the population.
Our culture is slowly changing and evolving, in large part in response to older adults. Since the 1960s, the boomer generation is known to stand up and challenge norms and stereotypes, and today, they have new expectations and little patience with ageism. They are driving changes that we are just beginning to experience. At some point, their power will demand a seismic change in our youth-obsessed culture.
But we cannot expect boomers to shoulder the burden alone. Aging is an experience we all share. To drive personal and social change, we have to raise awareness and confront the negative stereotyping around us. We need to speak out against ageism and encourage all to accept and celebrate every age.
We must also take the conversation beyond words to create an environment, a culture of community, where we no longer see limitations in older adults but rather value and potential.
We are all in this together, growing older. If we can commit ourselves to the understanding that life is about continued growth – mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually – that every older adult has the right and the opportunity to develop his or her full human potential, we can build a better society for all, with equality and freedom from ageism.