Understanding Ageism

Understanding Ageism


Ageism is an unrecognized bias that is prevalent world over. It has far-reaching effects which span a number of spheres including healthcare. Knowing what it is will help us stop unconscious ageist behaviour.

 Ageism – a term many of us are probably hearing for the first time. While we have heard of discrimination based on skin colour, religion, gender, etc. there also exists discrimination people face due to their age. This age discrimination is called ageism.

It is not just older people who are discriminated against because of their age, younger people too are victims of ageism though the circumstances for both vary.

Ageism is so deep-rooted in our society that we are not even aware of some of our ageist actions or thoughts. Children as young as 4 years can unconsciously propagate ageism. From healthcare institutions to workplaces, ageism can happen anywhere.

Recognizing Ageist Thought

The term ageism was first coined by Robert N Butler to express the bias older people faced due to their age. As ageism has also been shown to affect younger people, for the sake of clarity, the term reverse ageism is usually used.

Ageism experienced by older people is often related to the expectations younger people have of them when it comes to behaviour.

  • Youngsters often think that older people have had their turn and should make way for others who are younger.
  • They also feel that inadequate resources should be given to youngsters first.
  • Expectations on how older people should behave is also widespread among the younger generation.

The ageism youngsters face is also extensive:

  • Many a time, younger people’s views are dismissed as inexperienced, impractical or idealistic before giving due thought to the idea just because it came from someone young.
  • Their behaviour too is often stereotyped as entitled and disrespectful.

Types of Ageism

Many of us probably unconsciously perpetrate some form of ageism. Being aware of the different types will help us prevent ourselves from being ageist.

  • Institutional Ageism – This is when an institution or organization enacts policies that result in ageism.
  • Interpersonal Ageism – This is ageism occurring in social situations.
  • Internalized Ageism – This is when a person starts to believe the biases applied to him/her based on age as true.
  • Hostile Ageism – This is typically having a hostile attitude towards an age group, for example, believing that all teenagers are difficult or aggressive.
  • Benevolent Ageism – This is the opposite of hostile ageism where people have a patronizing attitude towards an age group. For example, treating all elderly as helpless and childlike and underestimating them.

Sometimes, we might not even be aware that we are promoting ageist practices. This leads to a different classification of ageism.

  • Implicit – Here, we are unaware that we are showing ageist behaviour.
  • Explicit – This is being conscious of ageist behaviour but still practicing it.

Ageism and Healthcare

When resources are limited, healthcare is rationed according to age. This rationing works to the disadvantage of older people.

  • A study that was conducted in 2020, showed that age decided which patients would get certain procedures. Also, when an older patient is diagnosed with a terminal illness, medical staff unconsciously hold back on certain treatments.
  • When it comes to medical research, the people chosen for the study invariably belong to a younger age group when the condition being researched actually affects older people more. As a result, the study does not cover the vulnerable age group and the findings of the study too are not applicable to the age group that is most under threat from that particular health condition.
  • As far as mental health care is concerned, studies suggest that mental health workers are not oriented to the mental health issues older people face and tend to avoid working with them.
  • While there is insufficient research on the attitude of medical workers towards ageism, there is an indication that ageism is bound to exist in that as well. Healthcare leadersneed to stress on the importance of studies so that discrimination if it exists can be identified and corrective action taken.
  • Research on ageism in long-term care too is insufficient which is another matter of concern as unless we know the problem, we cannot address it.
  • However, the little research that is available does show manifestations of ageism in the kind of language used and the patronizing attitude of the caregivers. Neglecting the needs of elderly patientsin an attempt to save money is also an ageist action that was observed.

Effects of Ageism on Health

Ageism is not just a discriminatory practice that has to be stopped because it is unfair, it has to be stopped because it has measurable effects on people’s health.

A long-term study done in Ohio, USA, on more than a hundred residents over the age of 50 years, gave the following results.

  • Those with a positive attitude towards aging lived 7½ years longer than those with a negative attitude.
  • People’s risk for cardiovascular conditions doubled if they believed the negative stereotypes about aging while growing up.
  • Positive beliefs on aging also led to older people faring better when it came to strength, gait and balance testing.
  • The study associated negative age-belief with accelerated memory loss.
  • Mental health conditions were found to be significantly lesser when people had a positive attitude towards aging.

Combating Ageism

The WHO recommends certain practices governments and institutions can put into place to fight ageism.

  • At the top of the list is education. Only through education can we bust myths and change people’s ageist attitudes.
  • Institutions can organize workshops and awareness programs that highlight age groups’ prejudices towards each other.
  • Policy changes wherever necessary should be implemented to prevent ageist behaviour.

Individuals too can do their bit towards preventing ageism. This includes:

  • Being aware and recognizing how ageism shapes thought process and trying to change it.
  • Reading up on ageism to understand it better.
  • Putting this knowledge to proper use – talking to others about ageism, speaking up against ageism when encountered and supporting those who are fighting it.

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