Ageism is discrimination and negative stereotyping on the basis of a person’s age. It permeates the media and everyday conversations to such an extent and in such subtle ways that people may accept negative stereotypes of older adults (“forgetful,” “grouchy,” “less competent”) as truth, unconscious of their bias. While not denying very real difficulties that may arise, later adulthood is a life stage that involves both opportunities and challenges, as do all stages of life.
While trying to convey the significance of current demographic changes, it is easy to slip into an alarmist mode. The media and even scholars often characterize population aging as a natural disaster, a “silver tsunami,” threatening to overwhelm society. Re-framing the discussion of changing demographics in a more positive way avoids an ageist mindset: “As Americans live longer and healthier lives…”
- Older adults are marginalized as outsiders, when referred to as “them” not “us.”
- The medicalization of life experiences once regarded as non-pathological (e.g., childbirth, sadness, menopause) extends to the experience of aging, as well. Viewing the process of aging in a medical frame implies the older adult needs “care.” Old age may be labelled either a “problem” to be “fixed” or a fatalistic condition for which “nothing can be done.”
- Redefine aging to include its positive aspects. Prevailing negative assumptions about “getting old” lead to fatalistic attitudes.
- Avoid language like “senior citizens,” “aging dependents,” “the elderly.”
A call for justice beats a plea for sympathy. Ac-knowledge that a just society strives to treat everyone as equal participants.
- Acknowledge that social contexts and social policies shape the experience of old age, that health and financial security are not totally dependent on an individual’s planning and good decisions.
- A new metaphor can shift perceptions of aging. Compare the process of aging to “building momentum,” the potential force of built-up experience and insight, and view older adults as sources of resources to be tapped.
Remember, ageism is discrimination against your future self.
Learn more about ageism:
- Ashton Applewhite (2016):
This chair rocks: A manifesto against ageism
- Applewhite TED talk on ageism: