Ageism is in the “hi, young lady” greeting to the 80-year old. It’s in the black-balloon birthday parties. It’s in workplaces and in health care. It permeates advertisements and entertainment.
Do you notice it? Many longevity professionals work in age friendly bubbles. But if you think ageism doesn’t affect your business, think again. Start with these must-read articles.
People who accept negative age stereotypes are likelier to suffer cardiovascular problems and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, according to extensive research by Becca Levy, a professor of public health and psychology at Yale University.
Meanwhile, Levy found that people with more positive images of aging had better psychiatric health and physical functioning. Her subjects were studied over periods of years, minimizing the possibility that worsening health conditions shaped their outlook rather than the other way around. …
Levy theorizes that young people are especially likely to absorb ageist stereotypes because they don’t identify with older people and feel no need to defend against the insults. Later, when they become old, they turn those attitudes back on themselves, experiencing health problems they’ve grown up expecting old people to experience.
Hitting 60 felt just fine. I knew the years were bestowing more than they took away. I knew it from my own experience, and my research continued to confirm that I was no exception and that the years ahead had even more to offer. But I had yet to internalize that knowledge, to integrate it into my beliefs and attitudes, to embed it into my sense of self and my place in the world, to make it my own. I had to acknowledge and start letting go of the prejudices about aging that had been drummed into me since childhood by the media and popular culture. Wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old. Absorbing these fallacies had been effortless. Banishing them is unsettling, and infinitely harder. Present tense because I’m still at it, as I’m reminded on a regular basis.
The prevailing thinking by the majority of the public sampled was an association between aging and decline. The most common language about aging was of “loss,” “slowing down,” and “breaking down.” There was a strong belief that a loss of control and deterioration are inevitable as one ages. …
Implicated in the belief about older adults’ lack of capabilities is that “nothing can be done.” If decline were inevitable, why bother investing in preventive and support services that, in others, would help to maintain independence, health, and social involvement?
Ageism is so hard to root out because it allows us to ward off a paralyzing fact with a pleasing fiction. It lets us fool ourselves, for a time, into believing that we’ll never die. It’s not a paradox that ageists are dissing their future selves—it’s the whole point of the exercise. The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker codified this insight as “terror management theory.” Becker wrote, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
I had to acknowledge and start letting go of the prejudices that had been drummed into me since childhood by the media and popular culture. Wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old. Absorbing these fallacies had been effortless. Banishing them is unsettling, and infinitely harder. Present tense because I’m still at it, as I’m reminded on a regular basis.
What was the hardest prejudice to let go of? A prejudice against myself — my own future, older self — as lesser than my younger one.
As senior vice president of research at LeadingAge, I’m particularly incensed by ageist attitudes that paint all older people as frail, sick and helpless. These stereotypes have led to a dangerous assumption, communicated in both overt and subtle ways, that older people are not valuable members of society, that they are “takers,” rather than “contributors.”
We all know that’s hogwash. And, thankfully, we’re getting that message across through anti-ageism initiatives, including LeadingAge’s vision of “an America freed from ageism.”
I applaud vigorously when stereotypes like this are exposed and eradicated through education and advocacy.
But, I still have lingering doubts.
Are we taking the anti-ageism movement too far?
In the process, are we running the risk of devaluing aging altogether?
A version of this post was published in May 2018.