You’re Still Guilty of this One “Ism”

Guest Column by Deb Taylor

Why do so many people who would rightly oppose the atrocious effects of racism or prejudices about social class shamelessly yield to ageism?  Ageism is discrimination based on prejudices about age. When ageism is directed at older people, it often involves the assumptions that older people are less competent than younger people. Ageism has a huge negative impact on older people, throughout all areas of life.

Youth is so ingrained in our society as what we should strive for, that we don’t consider this mindset as a prejudice, but rather as fact.

While addressing the European Parliament in 2014, Pope Francis described Europe as “A ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant.”

When criticized for this ageist comment, many stated that he wasn’t an ageist and that he has even said that young people need the wisdom and knowledge of older people whose insight is like “fine wine that gets better with age.”

However, even though Pope Francis surely wasn’t intending to discriminate against older adults, his comment highlights the widely held prejudice our society has of older individuals.

We are still being told that we should idealize youth, not realizing that this leads to discrimination against older adults.

Celebrities, such as Madonna, look drastically different in ads versus in person due to photoshop making them have the desired youthful look. Many men and women in the workforce find themselves feeling the need to look younger and dye their hair in order to be considered for a job, yet still face job discrimination. Even young children have gotten the message. In a study done about the stereotypes of aging, 66 percent of 4- to 7-year-olds said they wouldn’t want to be old. In another, the majority of reactions from preschoolers to sixth graders when asked how they’d feel about becoming elderly were rated as negative. They included, “I would feel awful.”

According to the FrameWorks Institute –  prejudice is often implicit—people aren’t even aware of their own prejudices. We are all exposed to negative messages about older people, so our brains are wired to form judgments about people based on their age. For example, because of years of exposure to the news and common movie characters, many people subconsciously assume that older people are forgetful, grouchy, or frail. These stereotypes lead to discrimination against older people in many areas of life, from health care to the workplace.

So how can we fix this problem that many don’t even recognize as one?

Once we know about these unintentional, implicit biases, we become less likely to act on “snap judgments” and more likely to treat people fairly, regardless of age. We must oppose age bias and take steps to reduce ageism in our society.

We can start by changing our attitude on aging and support older adults.

Karen Hitchcock, author of Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly states

“If we are to welcome the elderly into our communities and support them to stay there for as long as possible, if we are to attend to the social needs of our elderly citizens both inside and out of institutions, then we need both government intervention and funding, along with the community’s engagement and help.”

We all one day will age into what we consider to be old, but it shouldn’t stop us from harnessing our own energy and our ability to contribute to our communities and simply doing the things that we want to do. For many, youth is desirable, but it doesn’t mean aging can’t be too.

Deb Taylor is the CEO of Senior Community Services and its Reimagine Aging Institute, a nonprofit that helps older adults and caregivers navigate aging to maintain independence and quality of life. We provide a wide array of programs —