Ageism: A Prejudice with Dire Consequences for Older Adults

If you’ve been following United Church Homes over the past few years, you’re probably familiar with the term ageism. But what exactly is ageism, and how does it impact the lives of the nation’s older adults? The following is a Q&A with Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, executive director of UCH’s Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging.

Beth Long-Higgins Executive Director Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, Executive Director, Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging
Q: What is ageism?

A: Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice or discrimination against people based on their age. It can be experienced anytime someone makes assumptions about another person’s abilities or preferences based on the chronological age they assume the other person to be. It can happen to Generation Z and to older adults and everyone in between.

Q: How pervasive is ageism against older adults in society?

A: There are several key narratives that perpetuate negative aging stereotypes. We all have internalized these because we’ve seen and heard those myths and assumptions over and over. These narratives cloud our ability to see beyond the image that aging is nothing but downhill and decline. Or they highlight that you can do anything if you just make the right choices well into your 80s, 90s and beyond. Or the narratives that only highlight negative physical changes, failing to recognize (as research is showing) that life satisfaction and happiness increase with age. The result is that we pit older adults against younger generations. We see older adults as being “other” and assume “I’m not old!” Or we feel powerless
compared to statistical data that only seems to provide evidence that the world’s aging population will ruin us all. The reality is that we are a nation of ingenious thinkers. As more people are living longer, we could change the narratives, the systems and the policies to help support older adults.

Q: Does ageism impact life expectancy?

A: Yes, on both a personal and a societal level. Research shows that life expectancy increases by seven and a half years when one thinks positively about aging. Older people who feel they are a burden may also perceive their lives to be less valuable, putting them at risk for depression and social isolation. Aging is a normal process of living, not just a pathway to dying, but it also involves more than a positive attitude.

According to the Framework Institute’s research, reshaping our negative thoughts about older people requires ensuring that older people are not isolated from the rest of society and that they contribute to it. We need to be sure that older adults are included in the community. We need to commit ourselves to the vision of justice for all. When we don’t treat everyone as equals, we shortchange society by overlooking and denying the contributions that all can make for the good of our communities. This includes the contributions of older adults.

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