Ageism and Aging

Ageism and Aging are stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. The term was coined in 1971 by Robert Butler to describe discrimination against seniors, and patterned on sexism and racism. Butler defined “ageism” as a combination of three connected elements. They are prejudicial attitudes toward older people, old age, and the aging process. There are also other discriminatory practices against older people, such as institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older people.

Contrary to common and more obvious forms of stereotyping such as racism and sexism, ageism is more resistant to change. For instance, if a child believes in an ageist idea against the elderly with few people correcting him, then as a result, he will continue to grow into an adult believing in ageist ideas. In other words, ageism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ageism beliefs against the elderly are commonplace in today’s society. For example, when an older person forgets something, he or she could be quick to call it a “senior moment,” failing to realize the ageism of that statement. People also often say ageist phrases, such as “dirty old man” or “second childhood” of which elders miss the negative undertones. On the other hand, when elders show greater independence and control in their lives, defying ageist assumptions grows stronger.

Labor regulations also limit the age at which people are allowed to work and how many hours and under what conditions they may work. Age discrimination in hiring has been shown to exist in the U.S. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s first complainants were female flight attendants complaining of (among other things) age discrimination. It was also found that firms are more than 40% likely to interview a young adult job applicant than an older job applicant.

Ageism has significant effects on the elderly and young people. The stereotypes and infantilization of older people by patronizing language, affects older people’s self-esteem and behaviors. After repeatedly hearing a stereotype that older people are useless, they may begin to feel like dependent, non-contributing members of society. They may start to perceive themselves in terms of the looking-glass self (i.e. in the same ways that others in society see them).

Studies have also shown that when older people hear these stereotypes about their supposed incompetence and uselessness, they perform worse on measures of competence and memory. These stereotypes then become self-fulfilling prophecies. The research further declares that the older individual might also engage in self-stereotyping, taking their culture’s age stereotypes to which they have been exposed over the life course, and directing them inward towards themselves. Then this behavior reinforces the present stereotypes and treatment of the elderly.

Many overcome these stereotypes and live the way they want, but it can be difficult to avoid deeply ingrained prejudice, especially if one has been exposed to ageist views in childhood or adolescence.

A final thought on the subject – implicit ageism is the term used to refer to the implicit or subconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors one has about older people. These may be a mixture of positive and negative thoughts and feelings, but gerontologist Becca Levy, reports that they “tend to be mostly negative.”

So what can an elderly person do when bombarded with ageist comments?

The answer is to pushback with positive replies by challenging the negativity of someone who is either ignorant about ageist comments and their effect, or finds it humorous to offend by suggesting, “It’s just a joke, so lighten up, I didn’t mean anything offensive.” “Oh really!” my reply!

Quotable quote: “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
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