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Use these strategies to overcome internal ageism

Last week we discussed the personal impact of internal ageism, the negative voices in our head that influence our well-being and longevity.

Fortunately, ageist beliefs are not set in stone and are malleable according to Becca Levy, Yale Professor of Epidemiology as noted in The Washington Post (Aug. 17, 2023) and author of “Breaking the Age Code” (HarperCollins, 2022). To prevent internal ageism and to help us adopt an age thriving attitude, Levy developed the ABC method, one of age liberation. It consists of increasing awareness, placing blame where it is due and challenging negative beliefs.

Here are some highlights.

Increasing awareness. Creating awareness comes from within; it’s internal.  It’s becoming aware of our own language and choice of words.  “Elderspeak” substitutes normal words and language with simple words, expressing them louder, slower and in a sing-song manner. Although sometimes it is endearing to refer to an older person as sweetie, dearie or being cute, these words are considered ageist and usually reserved for children or puppies according to Levy and others.

Creating awareness also comes from without, it’s external looking beyond ourselves. Look to role models that can be grandparents, teachers, neighbors or a school chum. Focus on their strong positive qualities and how they defy negative stereotypes. Note, it can be counterproductive to model your life after a single image that is “too positive” writes Levy.  Examples include the late John Glenn who re-entered space at age 77, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg who wrote brilliant briefs in her 80s or Henri Matisse who painted the famous cutouts in his 80s when nearly blind. These individuals are an inspiration.  Yet we may never enter space, write legal briefs for the Supreme Court or become a renowned painter. However, we can focus on their specific qualities such as their work ethic, commitment to gender equality, being prepared and tenacity.

In addition to becoming aware of role models, we can look at greeting cards.  Many describe body parts as sagging or aching as well as having knees that crack. Birthday cards make fun of memory loss, bladder control or poke fun at the sex lives of older adults.  Although many will argue that when such cards come from a best friend, that individual will know it’s a joke and won’t take it personally.   Levy and others would argue otherwise. For anti-ageist birthday cards, see Age-Friendly Vibes developed by Jan Golden.

Less obvious to the eye is subtle external ageism, the absence of older persons in clinical trials or the minimal representation in advertisements, entertainment, marketing strategies and the workplace.

Placing blame where it us due. When things go wrong, we have a natural tendency to blame the person rather than the situation according to Levy.  Here’s a story to make the point. A 92-year-old man goes to the doctor and complains that his right leg is sore, inflamed and painful. The doc says, “What do you expect, you are 92 years old. The older man says, “but doc, my left leg is the same age.” Dismissing a patient’s complaint because the patient is old is blaming old age when something else could be the cause such as a pulled muscle. Assuming the problem is age is assuming the condition cannot be helped.

Challenging negative beliefs. This is taking responsibility and opportunity to speak out. It may occur when seeing ageist images in advertising and the media, when hearing ageist comments in conversation or observing ageist policies or practices in the workplace or in public forums. If someone says an artist or politician is “too old,” or “too young,” respond with “I try to think about what they are doing, not how old they are.” Instead of saying, “you look great for your age,” just say, “you look great.”

Here are three messages: Levy’s research finds those with positive age beliefs live, on average, 7.5 years longer than those with negative age beliefs.  Beliefs can change. We each have an opportunity to develop positive attitudes and possibly have those 7.5 bonus years.

Best wishes to all for a 2024 year of health, peace and joy … with endless moments of kindness.

Recommended resources:

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


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