Fighting Ageism in 2021

Related topics: Senior Lifestyles

Group of enthusiastic older adults

Remember that hateful "boomer remover" nickname for the coronavirus? Or certain politicians who implied that the rate of death and serious illness among older adults was "a small price to pay" for opening up businesses? Mockery of older people who were less proficient in communications technologies became standard cliché of the time. And now we're even hearing some resentment that seniors, who by far are at highest risk of ill effects from the virus, have received priority for the vaccine.

Some experts wryly call ageism "the last acceptable prejudice." The events of the past year and a half have certainly shed light on negative attitudes about older adults—both in the U.S., and worldwide. Fortunately, more attention is being paid to ageism these days.

Around the world

"The pandemic has put into stark relief the vulnerabilities of older people," say experts from the World Health Organization. In March 2021, they released "The Global Report on Ageism," a call for "urgent action to combat ageism and expose ageism for what it is—an insidious scourge on society."

The report found that 50% of people worldwide hold ageist attitudes. The WHO experts say people subjected to ageism experience higher stress, are less likely to take care of their health, and are at greater risk of changes in the brain that cause dementia. This not only harms them, but also costs societies billions of dollars each year.

"Ageism harms everyone—old and young. But often, it is so widespread and accepted—in our attitudes and in policies, laws and institutions—that we do not even recognize its detrimental effect on our dignity and rights," said Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. "We need to fight ageism head-on, as a deep-rooted human rights violation."

In the U.S.

Older Americans Month poster

Each May, the Administration for Community Living sponsors Older Americans Month, a time to recognize and celebrate the value and many contributions of older adults.

Studies this year have shown that while older adults in the U.S. have been hard hit by the pandemic—both by the virus and due to the effects of social distancing—they have also shown the kind of resilience that provides a good example for younger people. The theme of Older Americans Month this year is "Communities of Strength," recognizing the ways that older adults foster connection and engagement.

Both the WHO and Older Americans Month 2021 emphasize ways societies can address ageism through policies, research and agencies that create support services for people throughout the lifespan, while enhancing empathy and dispelling stereotypes. We can all combat ageism by advocating for policies and supports that do not discriminate against older people.

Checking our own attitudes

This advocacy is vital—but in fact, fighting ageism really begins with each of us. Maybe it' time for an attitude check! Ask yourself these questions:

Q: How's my attitude about older adults and aging in general? Do I make negative jokes about older adults that reinforce stereotypes? Do I use terms like "geezer" and "old coot"? Do I devalue and make light of people who are living with age-related physical and cognitive challenges?

Q: What's my attitude about my own aging? Older adults who harbor negative ideas about aging are more likely to experience poor health and reduced independence. The effect starts early on: Numerous studies show that young people with a negative attitude about older adults go on to have a higher rate of physical and cognitive problems during their own later years.

Q: Can I pass the birthday card test? Greeting card racks are hotbeds of ageist attitudes on display. We might think those "over the hill" jokes are funny or perhaps good-natured self-deprecation, but jokes reveal a lot about attitudes—and reinforce them. Would we buy a card with negative stereotypes based on ethnicity? Look for age-affirming or age-neutral messages instead.

Q: Do I call out ageism when I see it? Today, more people are challenging each other to consider their biases. If you hear someone make an ageist comment, bring it up just as you would a racist remark. Question stereotypes. Don't make age a target of derision in political conversations.

Q: Do I seek out positive images of aging? Media analyses show that many portrayals of older adults are negative—if, in fact, older characters are featured at all! Slow progress has been happening, with movies and TV series featuring both the realistic challenges and the joys of growing older—and, perhaps the ultimate goal, characters for whom age isn't even relevant. Morgan Freeman as the next Batman, anyone?

Q: Do I spend time in mixed-aged gatherings? Even before the pandemic, our culture offered fewer opportunities for intergenerational activities and solidarity than in previous years. A study from the U.K. referred to this as "age apartheid," noting that segregation of age groups can be a big factor in prejudice against older adults. Spending time with people of every age is good for everyone!

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2021 IlluminAge

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