What is Ageism?

Unfortunately, ageism is wide spread and a socially normalized prejudice.

By Leah Felderman  

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What is ageism and how does it affect our aging parents?

Ageism is discrimination against people on the basis of their age. Ageism, as it's applied to older people, involves the stereotyping of and prejudice towards our aging loved ones. Ageism is widespread and, unfortunately, so well incorporated into our society that it has become a passively accepted norm. Ageism is an everyday challenge as older people are marginalized and excluded when they should be included and esteemed. Ageism excludes people from opportunities based on their age as demonstrated in the work place, social service opportunities, and as a consumer. Ageism subscribes to negative stereotypes, further marginalizing our aging and elderly loved ones while negatively impacting their physical health in addition to their emotional and mental wellbeing.

Unfortunately, ageism is wide spread and a socially normalized prejudice. Unlike racism or sexism, ageism has no great countermovement to alleviate its inequities; yet it is a prejudice that doesn't discriminate and burdens elderly of all races, genders, and sexual orientations. An unfortunate affliction to encounter once being so fortunate to survive into one's elder years!

People are living longer, worldwide. Old age, as we know it, is a luxury typically afforded only by Americans and our industrialized counterparts such as Canada, Britain, and Western Europe. Now, people in most other parts of the world can expect to live into their sixties and beyond. This is a marked accomplishment as many countries' life expectancy only crept into the fifties not so long ago.

Here in America the average life expectancy is approximately 80 years old: 81 for women and 76 for men according to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Other sources will cite a variety of numbers incorporating details based on location/state of residence, lifestyle, ethnicity, and other genetic factors. However, for the most part Americans are extremely fortunate and can hope to achieve octogenarian status. The Census Bureau give us the following statistics:

Adding years to one's accomplished life brings with it an abundance of opportunities- for the aging person, their family, their community, and society as a whole. Additional years provide the aging a chance to continue and cultivate their fields of expertise, and/or pursue new activities and fields of knowledge. An older person has accumulated decades of knowledge and experience that should not be over looked; they are in fact living history. Could you imagine directly sourcing a person that has lived through WW2? People that have survived the atrocities of a nuclear attack or a concentration camp? There is a theory that ageism exists, in part, due to the forward momentum of society. Inventions and other such "progress" that make our elders "irrelevant"-e.g., why bother speaking to living history when one can read it in a book or see it on the internet?

The visibility of older people in positive societal roles is limited, at best. There is the curmudgeonly great-uncle complete with his judgmental gaze and fist shaking, and the kindly grandmother baking muffins and knitting crochet. There are the commercials where an exceptionally good looking grey-haired individual or couple is encouraging your elder to try a particular brand name medical prescription. Or the ubiquitous "Help me I've fallen," commercial. And this, dear readers, is the tip of the ageism iceberg. This limited scope on an elder's role or capacity in society as demonstrated by the cranky, the kindly, failing health, and/or the need for supervision. This is the insidious nature of ageism; so ingrained and pervasive in our culture we automatically assign our elders a negative role instead of as a positive contributing influence in our daily lives.

Now that we know what to look for we see ageism everywhere, woven into the fabric of society. How do we combat ageism and let our elders know we value them as productive, contributing members of society? Below are three very easy steps you and your senior can take to help mitigate the negative effects of ageism in your daily lives!

How to Combat Ageism:

Support businesses that are conscientious of their senior consumers

Don't discount the amount of thought that goes into the details of a store layout. Senior friendly stores that have their aging consumers in mind select carpet over shiny slick floors, have items stocked on easily accessible shelves, and have counters at an appropriate height for seniors and those using wheelchairs. Business that keep seniors in mind have automatic doors and assistive devices readily available if one needs some extra help physically navigating the store. Employing helpful staff that are accommodating to their elderly customers is essential: never underestimate the need for and appreciation of assistance to the car with purchases. Knowing that many seniors are on a fixed income or a tight budget, businesses offering additional savings on a "Senior Day" is an added bonus.

Support businesses that are senior friendly to their employees

Business that are conscientious of their senior employees will offer equal opportunity in hiring, pay and benefits. You would never guess it by the makeup of many store employees but hiring equitably across all ages is actually a federal law and requirement of all business, no matter what the sector and/or business size. Mom and Pop stores are just as responsible for adhering to the Age Discrimination Employment Act as are larger chain stores. In addition to equitability in hiring, stores should be equitable in the pay and benefits for elderly employees when compared to their younger counterparts. Hiring a token senior at a reduced rate is unfair, unconscionable, and illegal! Support business that treat their senior employees fairly and have ethical employer practices.

Support your senior community by getting involved

Getting involved with the aging community and getting them out into the surrounding community is essential. While the culture of the US is still predominately to "warehouse" our elderly and/or ship them off to Florida and Arizona, let us not forget that we still have an obligation to the generation that taught us how to use a spoon, walk, and talk. The more time we are able to spend cultivating positive connections to and with our aging population the more fruitful the rewards become for all parties. One day, if we are lucky, we will be in their proverbial shoes, and the countermovement against ageism will be well established!

Free time and bills too tight to volunteer? Consider getting hired on at a job that focuses on the betterment of the aging population. Philanthropy comes in many forms! Are you an adult orphan or on less than speaking terms with your senior adult? There are plenty of non-biological elders that would appreciate and enjoy any time you have to offer! Fortunate to have your elderly loved one cohabitating with you and/or aging in place? Bring them along or encourage them to volunteer on their own.

Leah Felderman BA MA

About the Author

Leah Felderman is a proud alumnus of University of Central Florida (BA) and San Diego State University (MA). She has worn many occupational hats including teaching, hospitality management, government contractor and non-profit organizer. She is an intrepid international traveler having visited over 60 countries before happily settling down into her new life chapter of domesticity as a mom and Coast Guard wife.

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