AGEISM: a double-edged sword

Ageism cuts both ways. It hurts the older adult and the younger adult. It’s harmful, depressing and dangerous. Ageism is a systemic form of oppression, but unlike other causes of inequity, such as racism, sexism, or ableism, anyone can experience it and if you live long enough everyone will experience it. People do not always take ageism as seriously as other forms of inequity. Comedians who would never make racist jokes, think making derogatory comments about older adults is not only acceptable but also funny.

Data from the 2020 National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 82% of older Americans reported experiencing ageism regularly. The survey found that:

65% experienced ageist messages from the media
45% experienced interpersonal ageism
36% had internalized ageism

Some of the ways that people are discriminated against is as follows:

  • refusing to hire people over or under a certain age
  • asking for someone’s age at a job interview when it is not relevant to the work which is illegal in Canada
  • enacting policies that unfairly privilege one age group over another
  • viewing older people as out of touch, less productive, or stuck in their ways
  • viewing younger people as unskilled, irresponsible, or untrustworthy
  • bullying or harassment

The 2017 study. Trusted Source also notes that attitudes towards aging can contribute to healthcare staff spending less time with older patients. For example, research has found that ageism was associated with shorter, less effective, and more superficial communication from nurses.

The study’s report on social workers in healthcare settings found they spent less time with older people who have cancer compared with younger people. It also found that doctors are less patient, less respectful, and less involved with the care of older people. This results in unfair differences in treatment not based on medical needs.

How to Stop Ageism

The Word Health Organization states there are three ways to combat ageism:

  • education to dispel myths and stereotypes and raise awareness of the impact of ageism
  • intergenerational interventions, which create cooperation and empathy between age groups
  • law and policy changes, which can reduce inequity and discrimination

These efforts require commitment from governments and institutions, as they hold the most power to create change.

On an individual level, people can contribute to these efforts by being an ally. Allyship involves dedicating personal time and energy to taking action against ageism by:

  • Becoming aware of ageism: Reflect on how ageism shapes one’s own thoughts, feelings, and life experiences.
  • Learning about ageism: Learn how ageism affects others by listening to personal stories, reading books, and researching.
  • Developing skills: Learn about and practice advocacy skills, such as knowing when to speak up and when to step back.
  • Taking action: Put this knowledge into practice. Try correcting ageist stereotypes, challenging ageist jokes, or speaking out against ageist discrimination. Remember that this does not involve rescuing people, but supporting and advocating for them in situations where they are struggling to be heard.