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Combating ageism for successful ageing

In this video, Sabina Brennan talks about how combating ageism is important for successful ageing.
Hi, my name is Sabina Brennan, and I’m a Professor of Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin. In this video, I want you to imagine that you are an emergency room doctor. You’re presented with two patients. Both have serious gunshot wounds. Both will die without immediate treatment. You can save only one of them. One is 27. The other is 87. Who do you save? I’m guessing you choose to save 27-year-old. It’s a tough decision, but not too tough, right? After all, the 87-year-old has had a good innings and the 27-year-old has their whole life ahead of them. Chances are the 87-year-old will die pretty soon anyway.
Now, I want you to consider the same dilemma, but this time you have to decide between a black person or a white person. Who will you save? You say, I can’t make that decision. I’m not racist. Ok, so now choose between a woman and a man. Who will you save? You say, I can’t make that decision, either. I’m not sexist. Research has shown that ageism is the most tolerated form of prejudice when compared to racism and sexism. To make a decision based on age alone is ageist. Ageism can affect anyone at anytime in their life, impacting on young people as well as older people. However, in this video, I’m just going to focus on ageism in relation to older people.
Ageism refers to deep-rooted, negative beliefs about older people. Ageism, just like racism and sexism, generates discrimination and inequality, and leads to stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes and practises against older people. Ageism also includes the way older people are represented in the media, which is really important because it can have a wide impact on the public’s attitudes. Generally speaking, older characters are stereotyped as dependent, lonely, disagreeable, and tend to have various physical and mental ailments. Ageism, you see, fails to acknowledge diversity. All old people are not the same. In fact, populations of older people are more complex and more varied than populations of younger people.
Why one in three people describe older people as dependent, as sick, or as frail, the reality is that only approximately 5% of adults over 65 live in nursing homes or other forms of assisted living. Among the most common forms of age discrimination experienced by older people are being ignored or being treated as though we are invisible, being treated like we have nothing to contribute, being treated that we are incompetent, or hard of hearing, or that we have memory loss. The main source of age discrimination against older adults are younger people, governments, and health care systems and health care professionals.
For example, a young person presenting with back pain might be offered a variety of investigative procedures to establish the cause of the pain, while the older patient might have their ailment dismissed as just an inevitable part of ageing. We all do it. For example, if I see a young person with a limp, I might assume that it’s temporary, possibly the result of an accident or an injury. In contrast, I might attribute the limp in an older person to their age and assume that it’s permanent and untreatable, when it could just as easily be a temporary consequence of an accident. Sometimes we are the target of our own ageism.
The internalisation of ageing stereotypes begins in childhood, as early as four years of age. Children are able to pick out the oldest person from pictures of people of varying ages. And, rather shockingly, they associate the oldest adults with being helpless, passive, and incapable of caring for themselves. These stereotypes are reinforced in adulthood and become self-stereotypes as we age, and so we behave according to our own internalised stereotypes, ultimately fulfilling our own prophecies of ageing. Negative stereotypes are not just hurtful to older adults. They actually shorten our lives.
In a longitudinal study of ageing, over-50s with more positive perceptions of ageing lived 7 and 1/2 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of ageing, so we need to raise awareness about ageism to make it as socially unacceptable as other ‘isms’, like sexism and racism. How do we do that? Well, we could start by checking our own prejudices. Ask ourselves whether we are making assumptions about our own or other people’s abilities based on age or stereotypes. We need to stop accepting less and start demanding equal treatment as older adults. We need to call out discrimination and challenge negative stereotypes when we encounter them. We also need to make a conscious effort to see the person and not the age.
The media really do have an important role to play in combating ageism. Rather than resorting to lazy stereotypes, a more nuanced acknowledgement of diversity, and the positive aspects of ageing would more accurately reflect reality. Finally, we need to encourage and engage in intergenerational contact. Research shows that individuals at both ends of the age spectrum benefit. Seek out opportunities to engage with people at least 20 years older or 20 years younger than yourself. Check yourself for prejudice as you chat to the person, and be open about discovering more about the person than their age. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Ageism refers to deep-rooted negative beliefs about older people.

It can be difficult to see the full impact of stereotypes. Evidence shows how negative stereotypes about ageing can become self-stereotypes. We can end up behaving according to our internalised stereotype, fulfilling our own prophesies of ageing.

So, what strategies can we use to combat ageism, both within ourselves and from others?

1. See the person and not the age

Check your own prejudices and question whether you are making assumptions about your own or others’ abilities based on age.

2. Seek to engage with people at least 20 years older or 20 years younger than you

Check yourself for prejudices as you chat, and dismiss these thoughts in favour of openness and a willingness to discover more about the person than their age.

3. Challenge negative stereotypes

Call out any discrimination you might come across.

4. Check your language

Do you use phrases like “back in my day” or “when I was in my prime”? Frame these expressions more positively (e.g. When I was in my 20s) rather than referring to yourself as a lesser person than when you were younger.

5. Be proud of getting older

Acknowledge the reality that most older adults live well and independently. Only 5% of adults over 65 live in nursing homes or other forms of assisted living (United States Census Bureau, 2014).

So, having watched the video and learned some strategies to combat negative ageing stereotypes, we would like you to think about some of your assumptions.

  • Do you make assumptions based on the age of others?
  • Why do you think you hold these assumptions?

Share your thoughts on these two questions in the Comments below, mark the step as complete and click Next to move on to the next step in this week.

Sabina Brennan is a Research Assistant Professor in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

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Strategies for Successful Ageing

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