by Carol Cummings, BSN, RN
08 May 2019

Ageism is no laughing matter.

It’s a topic so hazardous to our health the World Health Organization is conducting studies to define ageism and find ways to combat it. It’s also a subject that is close to my heart. I recently wrote about our culture’s obsession with anti-aging and the negative effects of ageism.

But this time, I am making it personal.

May is National Older Americans Month, a time to honor the contributions of American seniors. In honor of our nation’s seniors, this month I am asking you to look within yourself and ask the question “Am I Ageist?” The answer might surprise you.

I recently trained other senior living professionals on this topic and here’s how it went: I posted 12 ageist statements around the room and asked each participant to place a post-it note on any one of the statements they have participated in. After the exercise, we were amazed at how many colored blocks stuck to each statement.

Look at these statements from the Star Tribune  and be honest with yourself about your own involvement in any of these scenarios:

  1. Birthday parties featuring black balloons and crepe paper, cards that make fun of getting old, joke gifts about aging.
  2. Anti-aging products and services.
  3. Praising older people by comparing them to younger ones: "You look good for [your age]," "You’re young at heart" or "Inside, I feel 30 years younger."
  4. "You’re still... [dancing, driving, going to the gym, wearing a particular style]" or "You’re too old to do those things."
  5. Describing minor forgetfulness as a "senior moment."
  6. Doctors, waiters and others directing comments about an older person at a younger companion or child of the older person.
  7. Health care and social-service providers who patronize older people, or who undertreat, over treat or overmedicate them.
  8. Patronizing language (sweetie, dear, honey, he’s so sweet, isn’t she cute). Thinking older people doing things associated with younger people (mild cursing, having or referring to sex) is adorable or surprising.
  9. Name-calling:?geezer, gramps, old fart, dirty old man, little old lady, old bag, biddy, old fogey.
  10. Lying about your age for fear of negative perceptions, or staying "39" year after year.
  11. Assuming that young people are computer geniuses and older people are technologically inept.
  12. Discussions of the "silver tsunami" that blame older people for economic and social challenges.

How did you do? Virtually everyone in my training, including me, had to admit that they have done or said or participated in many of the things on this list.  And that is the point—we are ALL ageist, especially if we have lived in the U.S. all of our lives.

No shame, just an honest admission. We are all in this together.  We are constantly bombarded with the message that old is bad and young is good. But we need to change the conversation about aging.

Ageism is unlike any other prejudice because it is a negative bias against our future selves. We will ALL experience aging if we are fortunate enough to live a long life.  So protecting your own future starts now. I think we all have a responsibility to combat this wave and be part of the solution.

Now that you have a better awareness of your own ageist leanings, what should you do?

During my training, we made a pact that for the rest of the day we would point out when anyone used ageist language or represented an ageist approach. Let’s make that pact together and commit to taking a stand against these ageist approaches.

If you see an older person being overlooked, stand up for them and give them the opportunity to use their voice to prove they can speak for themselves. If you are the older person and feel like you are being disregarded, stand up for yourself. If you hear someone call an older person “honey” or “sweetie” correct them and explain that no matter how well-meaning their words, they may have a negative impact on the older person. How about the “Over the Hill” themed birthday parties? Let’s agree to give those up.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” Your mind has been stretched; use that to combat the ageist wave.

Together we can make the future a better place for all of us.

Be well on purpose!

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