By: Rivka Kulik
Many people treasure the older adults in their lives as respected elders, a source to turn to for advice and guidance. The later years of age in a person's lifetime have been extolled as the Golden Years. At the same time, there is growing recognition of the presence of negative stereotyping and discrimination of people based on age, referred to as ageism. Ageism is not only insulting, but also harmful. Fortunately, there are strategies we can all learn to prevent or interrupt ageism and its harmful effects, and thereby better support and protect the older adults we know and love.
Ageism can happen in many different forms and interactions. Institutional ageism is when an institution or agency maintains policies and actions that promote or perpetuate discrimination or prejudice against older adults. Interpersonal ageism is when discrimination against older adults happens during social interactions. Internalized ageism can happen when an older adult begins to incorporate negative beliefs or feelings about older adults into their own perspective about themselves and other older individuals. All versions of ageism can block older adults from enjoying and employing their full potential.
Ageism can be expressed in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When ageism is thought-based, it may mean holding on to an image or idea that one perceives to be typical of older adults. Sometimes ageism is emotional, creating negative emotions - prejudices - against someone because of age. Behavioral ageism is when someone acts out negatively, either physically or verbally, against older adults because of their older age.
Age discrimination can be applied at all age levels. In fact, the Age Discrimination and Employment Act protects workers who are 40 and older. However, ageism is most likely to occur more as individuals become and appear older.
What can be done to interrupt or prevent ageism? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has summarized research on this topic and described two ways interventions can be employed. Educational interventions can provide instruction to reduce ageism. Intergenerational contact interventions feature opportunities for mingling between different ages and stages.
Any champion of older adults can use educational interventions that bolster self-confidence. These may include letting individuals’ care providers know of their accomplishments and skills. Also, many older individuals will appreciate when health professionals speak directly to them and include them in decision-making (at the same time, health professionals must be sensitive to differing cultural preferences around this topic). It can be helpful to teach older loved ones (possibly through role-play) how they can advocate for themselves and speak up against ageism that is directed at them.
For example, if it bothers them that someone calls them “Deary” or “Sweetie,” they can be encouraged to say so. Additionally, letter writing can be a powerful tool to call out instances of ageist discrimination. Champions of older adults can highlight the wonderful aspects of their loved ones to neighbors, relatives, friends and all people with whom they come in contact.
To address ageism through intergenerational contact, plan events and occasions where intergenerational interactions can take place. Let your respect for your loved older individual be apparent, letting them know how much you treasure them, enjoy them, and need them in your life. Encourage opportunities where older individuals can share the wisdom that comes with lived experiences. Let them showcase their skills and abilities and even teach some to others.
All of us who care deeply about the welfare of older adults must also cultivate awareness of the ageism we may have internalized. An older adult who has internalized ageism may feel negatively about him or herself, causing less of a desire to live and be active, and more stress and pain. Counseling, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help them change their way of thinking. Family therapy can help family members understand each other and teach ways of communicating and interacting. The older adult with internalized ageism may also benefit from a support group.
A last word about ageism: It’s actually possible to harness ageism to positive ends! “Benevolent ageism” refers to the phenomenon of individuals protecting older adults due to the vulnerabilities that can come with advanced age. In fact, benevolent ageism may have had beneficial effects for older adults during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, one must be conscious of the fine line between being benevolently protective versus patronizing or infantilizing.
We know that older adults are “worth their age in gold.” Together, by educating ourselves, and with intentional practices, we can reduce the harmful effects of ageism on the older individuals we treasure.
For more information on ageism, see these online resources: