Let’s Talk about Ageism

Brenda Josephs, Proactive Seniors Consultant

Recently, both Betty White (99!) and Dolly Parton (75) celebrated some milestone birthdays.  As I read through the various social media posts I thought – wow, doesn’t she look great for (insert age here).   Reflecting on my reaction, I realize that I am guilty of what I have actively advocated against since I began working with older adults!  AGEISM. 

Ageism is stereotyping or discriminating against someone based on age.  When Robert Butler coined the term back in 1969, he was referring to ageism against older adults, and he saw it as being on par with racism and sexism in terms of negative effect.  One in four Canadians confesses to ageism, however the reality is no doubt much higher than that.   How many times have you used the word “old” in a negative way?  Laughed at a cartoon or bought a birthday card poking fun at older people?

Our cultural obsession with youth and beauty is pervasive, to the point where most of the images of older adults shown on social media are negative.  The images that we do see are often the “super seniors” that are presented as the ideal to which all seniors should aspire, running marathons and modelling. And yes, this category would no doubt include Dolly Parton and Betty White.   Positive images – yes.  Not, however, realistic portrayals of the heterogeneous group that is our older population.   

More than just a social issue, ageism and the resulting negative perceptions and myths about aging have a harmful effect on our own psychological, physiological, and behavioural experience of aging.  Negative attitudes inevitably lead to negative outcomes.  We may not seek medical treatment or make healthy choices in our daily lives if we perceive that we are powerless to influence our aging experience in a positive way. In other words, if we expect to be ill and helpless as we grow older, that belief can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Health professionals may have a lack of knowledge or inexperience in dealing with older adults, leading them to make assumptions and generalizations.  With potentially devastating results. Compounding the issue are the communication challenges presented by hearing, visual or cognitive impairments.  Health issues may be “written off” as normal aging, and the older adult may feel disempowered and even less inclined to communicate with health care providers, resulting in a negative feedback cycle. 

Research on ageism indicates that intergenerational education and programs make a positive impact on dispelling myths and eliminating stereotypes.  The benefit of multi-generational interaction is universal – younger people sharing knowledge with older adults, and vice versa, promotes a more realistic view and a higher optimism about aging, and leads to feelings of value and productivity in older adults.  A win-win scenario. 

What can you and I do about ageism?  Start with your own perceptions of growing older and remember that it is a gift that not all of us are given.  Treasure that gift.   

About the author:

Brenda Josephs Proactive Seniors Consultant
Brenda Josephs, Kelowna

Brenda Josephs is an advisor with Proactive Seniors Kelowna. She has spent many years working in senior living communities and volunteering in senior service organizations, and is passionate about helping seniors and their families plan ahead to live their best lives! Contact Brenda at brenda@proactiveseniors.ca.