top of page

Exploring ways to identify ageism and counteract its negative effects

Last week, we discussed the profound effect of ageism on longevity, physical and cognitive health, recovery from illness and more. This week we will continue the discussion and address different forms of aging and some beginning thoughts on what we can do about it.

Ageism comes in many forms, according to

Interpersonal ageism. This takes place between groups of two or more individuals. For example, a supervisor doesn’t give you an assignment because of your age. A family member says, “We don’t expect that you can keep up with us” or “I don’t think you will understand what we are talking about.” And then there is elder speak, which is simplifying language while raising your voice. It’s speaking to older adults as if they were children.

Self-directed or personal ageism. That’s when we think about our own aging in negative ways that can easily lead to self-doubt. For example, you misplace your keys, lose an item or forget a person’s name and believe it’s the first sign of dementia. You don’t exercise because you are too old or don’t use a computer because you believe you are too old to learn new technology. These attitudes reinforce negative stereotypes about older people.

Institutional ageism. These are practices by institutions with laws, rules, social norms and policies and practices that systematically restrict opportunities for older adults simply based on their age. They can be so subtle that is difficult to identify them. Institutional ageism occurs in the workplace when older workers are denied opportunities for which they are well qualified. It occurs when older adults are underrepresented in health-related research studies and in clinical trials. It occurs when mental health professionals receive less training on how to effectively work with older adults.

One way to counteract ageism is to begin with ourselves and look at our own beliefs. If we are astute and self-aware, could we possibly harbor ageist attitudes? The answer is “yes.” Dr. Robert N. Butler, the highly regarded psychiatrist, geriatrician and founding director of the National Institute on Aging coined the word “ageism.” He suggests in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Why Survive? Being Old in America” (Harper & Rowe, 1975), that in addition to lack of knowledge and contact with older adults, there is another reason for ageism. Butler wrote, “there is another powerful factor operating – a deep and profound prejudice against the elderly which is found to some degree in all of us.”

So how do we know if we have ageist beliefs?

Psychologist and author Tracey Gendron, chair of the Gerontology Department, Virginia Commonwealth University in Virginia writes in “Aging Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End it,” (Steerforth Press, 2022), to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • “How do you feel about yourself as an aging person?”

  • “Are you hyper-focused on appearance?”

  • “What feelings and emotions surface when you realize that you, along with the rest of us are aging?”

  • “How do you feel in your own skin compared to five, 10, 15 or even 20 years ago?”

The answers may give us a beginning clue about how we feel about aging and how our own feelings and beliefs might expand beyond ourselves.

Gendron further recommends we think about where we learned about aging. Did we have any role models? Were they positive or negative? How have they influenced us? She suggests saying our thoughts aloud or writing them in a journal.

Finally, she suggests we think about our experiences and how they have brought us to this day; how we have grown and matured and give ourselves credit for it. By answering these questions, Gendron writes that we can rearrange our thinking about aging and even rewire our brain to challenge assumptions that aging is only about loss.

To help determine if we have ageist beliefs, check out the quiz by the Australian advocacy campaign EveryAGE Counts that is tackling ageism against older Australians with the “Am I Ageist?” quiz.

Another resource is the book, “This Chair Rocks; A Manifesto Against Ageism” (Celadon, 2019), by activist and author Ashton Applewhite who also provides a comprehensive clearinghouse on ageism resources. Her blog, “Yo: Is this Ageist?” answers individual questions about whether or not a situation, advertisement, movie and even a thought is ageist.

There’s more. October 7, 2022, is Ageism Awareness Day which is part of the United Nation’s Day of Older Persons. Expect lots more on this important topic in October.

That’s it for now. Stay well and be kind to yourself and others.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


bottom of page