Discrimination and prejudice against individuals or groups based on their age is called ageism. It can greatly impact society and create serious issues. It is prevalent in high-income countries like the United States and Canada. Citizens of these countries place a high value on youth, beauty, vitality and able to earn a high income. Unfortunately, as people age, these attributes are reduced.
Ageism can be experienced in many forms including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, institutional policies, being treated as a child when shopping or dining out. Seniors are portrayed in the media as crabby or incompetent. Common phrases like ‘over the hill’ or ‘older than dirt’ also perpetuates a negative stereotype.
Ageism results in serious consequences both for older people and society at large. Ageism limits the questions that are asked and the way problems are conceptualized and is a major barrier to developing good policies.
Ageism and Health
Older people who experience ageism internalize these messages. This results in stress, depression and other chronic illnesses. When people are marginalized they tend to isolate and withdraw from society. Older people start to experience low self-esteem believing that aging is a negative process and feeling like they are a burden on family. Negative beliefs about aging may be linked to brain changes resulting in Alzheimer’s disease.
Older adults with negative attitudes about ageing may live 7.5 years less than those seniors with positive attitudes. Having a positive outlook will help to lower cholesterol, blood pressure and maintain a healthy heart.
Ageism and The Pandemic
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, disgraceful incidents such as hashtags on social media (#boomerremover) occurred on a regular basis. Medical treatments without regard for the diversity of seniors became an ongoing concern. The highest risk of deaths and serious infections occurred with older individuals, demonstrating a complacency towards seniors.
With the significant visitor restrictions placed on nursing, retirement homes and acute care settings, many seniors experienced additional social isolation, loneliness, and inactivity. Without these frequent and meaningful social interactions with others, they experienced rapid declines in cognitive functioning and increased rates of depression and anxiety.
During the COVID-10 epidemic, elder abuse hotlines were reporting a 10% increase in calls regarding scams and frauds. This pandemic has reinforced a greater need for strategies to address ageism, social isolation, loneliness, and elder abuse.
Physicians must educate themselves on the special needs of seniors and encourage physically active habits. Symptoms or physical complaints should not be treated as issues from the aging process.
Older adults need to take charge of their health care treatments and options. They need to always question what is being recommended to them. Parents need to instill positive attitudes toward aging with their children. Negative attitudes can change with education, familiarity and understanding.
Caregivers in adult home care, assisted living or nursing home care should do the following:
Changes need to be made to the medical curriculum in medical school regarding the elderly. Currently only 10% of schools require coursework or rotations in geriatrics and less than 3% of medical students choose to take the courses.
Someday we will all be there. It’s time to start changing attitudes about ageism.