Although it hasn’t happened quickly enough, embracing diversity and inclusion while rejecting racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in American life is accepted as fundamental to our freedom and the pursuit of happiness promised in the Constitution.
But one form of discrimination still thrives in the United States. Many people don’t realize they’re guilty of participating in it. It’s ageism.
Given the size of the Baby Boomer population, older adults are a growing proportion of our nation. People are living longer, staying healthier and more productive than previous generations. Yet discrimination based on age is so pervasive it goes largely unrecognized.
Do you assume someone is less capable using technology if they are older? Do you assume someone with gray hair might also have vision or hearing problems, or lack the capability of making independent decisions? Have you ever made a joke about “senior moments,” older drivers, or assumed older co-workers don’t know how to use online conferencing technology?
Ageism assumes an older adult is frail, dependent, and incapable. Its manifestation in the form of microaggressions result in real harm. It denies hundreds of thousands of people employment opportunities, accurate representation in our culture, and worst of all, denial of access to healthcare leading to significant health risks.
Newly released findings from a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association based on the National Poll on Healthy Aging showed the pervasive and harmful effects of everyday ageism.
In the study conducted by the University of Oklahoma and University of Michigan, nine out of ten Americans between ages 50 and 80 report suffering from ageism to the point it damages their mental and physical health due to age-based discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping in day-to-day living.
Here’s how ageism manifests itself, according to the adults surveyed:
- Nearly four of five people say they hear this statement: “having health problems is part of getting older” — even though the overwhelming majority surveyed described their own health as good or very good.
- Those surveyed say they are exposed to “internalized” ageism that feeling lonely, depressed, sad, or worried are part of getting older.
- Two-thirds of the older adults said they regularly see, hear or read insulting jokes about older people.
Most people would be horrified to be called out for racism, sexism, or homophobia — but they’ll laugh it up at an “OK Boomer” comment or make snide remarks about older adults struggling to use a smartphone.
There is growing recognition of ageism, creating initiatives like the partnership between the American Society on Aging and Shutterstock, a leading stock photography and video provider.
Shutterstock offers tools to address ageism with its “Keep Age In Focus” portfolio grants to solicit more age-inclusive content. It now issues age-friendly guidelines to its contributors, urging them to seek out older models including models of color and of the wide range of gender identities and sexual orientation; show older people fully engaged in a wide range of activities including work, leisure, ad without impairments or assistive devices, depict employees, managers, and volunteers at all levels, show diverse family members, and challenge the belief that youth, thinness, and light skin represents a beauty ideal.
“We just really talked about the images that we wanted to see in the world where we felt there were gaps and what we thought was missing,” said Leanne Clark-Shirley, a Ph.D. gerontologist and vice president of programs and thought leadership at ASA. “Then we sort of backed into, ‘OK, how would we instruct someone to create images along those lines?’”
From here, Clark-Shirley said, the next steps include working directly with marketing firms and advertising agencies across the country, discussing the realities of aging and how they could use their platforms to push back against ageist images. More than half of the marketing firms surveyed admit they have trouble finding images to depict older adults.
After working with older adults for three decades in my role as CEO of Serving Seniors (and aging into this population group myself), ageism is nothing short of an epidemic.
When an older adult loses a job, it’s often difficult if not impossible to replace their employment after age 50, especially in youth-oriented professions like information technology or marketing. Economic causes such as a loss of a job, along with medical bills or death of a spouse are the top reasons people aged 55 and older become homeless.
Many clients we assist at Serving Seniors are experiencing homelessness precisely because of these issues. Ageism is without a doubt a contributor to their circumstances.
I’m calling on you to check yourself and refrain from ageist jokes and assumptions. The truth is ageism is a form of discrimination facing all of us if we’re fortunate to live long enough. Then the joke will be on you.
Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.