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The Issue of Ageism in America Today

  • Published: 2012-09-12 (Revised/Updated 2017-05-03) : Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Article examines Ageism in America today a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old.

Quote: "The population of Americans who are over the age of 60 is growing at a rapid pace, yet society is still not embracing seniors."

Main Document

Robert Butler, in the 1960's, created the term, "Ageism," which he defined as being, "A process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender. Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills. Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings."

A social attitude. It is way of looking at older people that stereotypes them. Ageism is also part of attitudes where people believe that older adults can be treated in demeaning ways. Many people note that as they grow older and reach certain age milestones others begin to treat them differently. Their attitudes change. In many cases, being treated differently means being treated as "less" less valued, less capable etc. Or they are stereotyped. Ageism is also reflected when younger persons implicitly or explicitly act as if they are more entitled to family or social resources than older adults are.

Some advocates for seniors have suggested that ageism is a cause of neglect, elder abuse, as well as exploitation. While others have suggested there is not a significant enough body of valid research into the attitudes of known perpetrators of senior mistreatment and abuse to make a definitive argument, continued reports from nursing homes to crime reports suggest otherwise. Ageism contributes to conditions that marginalize and create disadvantages for seniors in American society.

Ageism, Mistreatment, and Combined Risk Factors

Inappropriate and unequal treatment continues to occur in workplaces in America, in the health care sector, as well as in legal areas that are based in part on age discrimination. Despite efforts to provide a level of protection that might be based upon compassion, ageism continues to lead to dis-empowerment of seniors in this nation. Ageist policies and beliefs on the parts of some in America continue to categorize seniors as one large, homogeneous population, completely ignoring the vast diversity issues and individual needs within the population of seniors as a whole.

Even more it seems that seniors, while being subjected to the ageist beliefs of others, are internalizing these same beliefs. Ageism and the discriminatory practices that are associated with it can impact seniors in ways that are noticeable by contributing to a reduction in their financial security, poorer health quality, and a subtler and potentially more pervasive impact - social isolation. Social isolation is a risk factor for mistreatment, poorer quality of life, and lower self-esteem. In combination with other types of prejudices such as racism, sexism, and anti-disability sentiment, the health and well-being of seniors is placed at further risk.

The Immense Growth of the Senior Population and Ageism

The population of Americans who are over the age of 60 is growing at a rapid pace, yet society is still not embracing seniors. Seniors in America find themselves fighting stereotypes such as, 'old geezer,' or attempting to achieve an equal footing in this nation's workplaces. Despite the efforts of advocates, people over the age of 60 in America find themselves dealing with ageism in this nation to this day.

One survey of 84 people over the age of 60 in America found almost 80% of them reporting having experienced ageism. The incidents they reported included other people making the assumption that they experienced either physical impairments or memory loss as a result of their age. Another study performed by Duke University revealed that the most common type of ageism, reported by 58% of those who responded, was having a joke told about seniors that made fun of them. The report by Duke University also found that 31% of the respondents reported being entirely ignored, or not being taken seriously as a result of their age.

The mistreatment of seniors in America is occurring at a time when people who are over the age of 85 comprise the fastest-growing portion of the population in this nation. Almost 35 million Americans are over the age of 65 according to the 2000 U.S. Census - a number that is expected to double by the year 2030 to 20% of the overall population. The numbers of seniors in America do not surprise geropsychologists, who work to inform others of the need for improved care of seniors. Their goal is to expand research and training opportunities while eliminating ageism in every area of American society. The demeaning stereotypes presented through the media, as well as public biases against seniors, must end.

The Effects of Positive and Negative Perceptions Related to Seniors

Negative stereotypes not only hurt seniors, they might also actually shorten their lifespans, according to psychologist Becca Levy, PhD, Assistant Professor of Public Health at Yale University. In her study of 660 people over the age of 50, she found that people who held more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than people who held negative self-perceptions related to aging. People with positive beliefs and attitudes concerning seniors as a whole seem to experience improved mental health. Ms. Levy found that seniors who were exposed to positive stereotypes experienced significantly improved balance and memory, while those who held negative self-perceptions experience worse memory, as well as feelings of worthlessness.

Ms. Levy stated, "Age stereotypes are often internalized at a young age - long before they are even relevant to people. In reality, the majority of seniors are self-sufficient, middle-class consumers with more assets than most young people, and the time and talent to offer society." She noted that even by the age of 4, children have become familiar with age stereotypes, something that is reinforced over their lifetimes. The values the media and society place upon youth may very well explain the increasing numbers of cosmetic surgeries among older adults, according to Ms. Levy. She says that whether this trend is positive or negative in fighting ageism is one of the areas within geropsychology in need of more research.

Age Discrimination

The U.S. Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age. The law forbids discrimination with regard to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, trainĀ­ing, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. It is also unlawful to harass a person beĀ­cause of his or her age or retaliate against a person for raising a claim of age discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "Age Discrimination: An Overview of the Law and Recent Commission Decisions", article discusses the analysis of age discrimination claims and recent case law - including U.S. Supreme Court decisions and Commission decisions.


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