How ageism harms individuals, society and the economy
This week, we are revisiting the subject of ageism, a prejudice against individuals because of their age, the most widespread and socially acceptable form of prejudice.
Ageism is subtle; a recent example demonstrates the point. On September 20, 2022, The New York Times reported on a health panel that recommended anxiety screening for all adults under age 65. This is very good news. What follows is part of the health panel’s report.
“The task force panel did not extend its screening recommendations to patients 65 and older. It said there was no clear evidence regarding the effectiveness of screening tools in older adults because anxiety symptoms are similar to normal signs of aging, such as fatigue and generalized pain.”
First of all, anxiety is not part of normal aging. And where is the evidence that fatigue and generalized pain are part of normal aging? Such a statement reinforces stereotyped thinking that can subtly reinforce negative stereotypes and, in turn, affect decisions of family members, the medical community and older adults themselves.
Taking this a step further, if older adults are tired on an ongoing basis, should they just chalk it up to aging? Perhaps they have a sleep disorder. And if they suffer from ongoing aches and pains, should they ignore them because it’s part of getting older? It may be caused by arthritis, lack of exercise or an injury. Furthermore, ignoring symptoms and assuming it’s part of normal aging can preclude opportunities to correct the problem.
The report provides important progress in identifying anxiety on a routine basis acknowledging the current limited mental health resources. It’s just that subtle detail about “aging” that can reinforce negative thinking.
There are many efforts to counteract age biases. One example is Ageism Awareness Day that will be celebrated on October 7, 2022. It was created by EveryAGE Counts, an advocacy campaign in Australia aimed at tackling ageism against older Australians. We in the U.S. have adopted it.
The American Society on Aging, a large professional membership organization, created a council on Ageism and Culture that highlights Ageism Awareness Day as an opportunity to help make a difference.
Here are some compelling facts council members identified supported by research:
On a global scale, one in two people are ageist, according to the World Health Organization.
Ageism and age stereotypes are often internalized at a young age. By age three, children are familiar with these stereotypes that are reinforced over their lifetime.
Ageism affects our health. Older individuals who have a positive view of aging about themselves live on average 7.5 years longer than those with a less positive view.
Ageism harms our financial well-being. Older workers face longer periods of unemployment, discrimination during the hiring process and fewer professional development opportunities
Ageism harms the economy. AARP (2020) estimates $850 billion in unrealized gains in Gross Domestic Product as a result of involuntary retirement, underemployment and unemployment among older workers.
An estimated $63 billion in healthcare costs among those age 60 and older are due to ageism. That translates to one out of every seven dollars spent on eight of the most expensive health conditions.
Only 1.5 percent of characters portrayed on U.S. television were older people, according to a 2021 World Health Organization report. Most have had minor roles and often are portrayed for comic effect, drawing on their physical, cognitive and sexual ineffectiveness.
Here are a few words and phrases you may read or hear that have ageist implications. They have been summarized by Changing the Narrative, a strategic communication campaign to increase awareness of ageism with reference to Research by Frameworks.
Referring to people in older adult communities as patients; they are residents, even in assisted living environments.
Description of all older adults as frail, weak and vulnerable.
Referring to the growing demographic of older adults as the “silver tsunami,” “gray wave” or the “demographic cliff” suggests that older people are a natural disaster.
And then there is the word “still.” Expressions of “still working,” or “still exercising” suggest that you are the exception since more adults cannot do what you are doing. That’s a big assumption.
Many may think we are too sensitive or perhaps lost our sense of humor. That debate will continue. Yet there is one indisputable fact: ageism continues, causing harm to individuals, society as well as the economy.
It prevails upon us to look at every avenue where it is accepted, call attention to it and offer alternatives. With our increased awareness, we become the change agents that can make a difference.
Stay well everyone 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 Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity