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  • Writer's pictureKaren McPhail, RN, MSN

Ageism- A Growing Problem in the US

Ageism is a growing problem that is especially prevalent in the US! Ageism is discrimination (when someone acts on a prejudice) based on age. Dr. Robert Butler coined this term in 1968, noting that ageism sadly exists in all cultures, but lately more so it seems from my experience in the US. So what is the impact of ageism on others?

Today, there are around 600 million people age 60 years and over worldwide. This number will double by 2025 and will reach 2 billion by 2050, with the vast majority of older people being in the developing world. Ageism has harmful effects on the overall health of older adults. Research by Levy et al shows that older adults with negative attitudes about ageing may live 7.5 years less than those with positive attitudes.

Ageist attitudes sadly limit and make older adults feel inferior and insecure. It is always surprising to me that many cannot see and value those who clearly have a wealth of knowledge, understanding, and experience to contribute to the world! How do they perpetuate stereotypes and hurtful attitudes? But the reality of this is that often times individuals simply do not realize that they are doing this!

Below are some common examples of ageism:

- Saying phrases such as: " wow you look great for your age, you are walking really well, it is amazing that you can still do that, you are too old to wear or do that.”

- Birthday parties featuring over the hill decor, black balloons, symbols of death, etc. Simply not funny!

- Cards or joke cards that make light of getting older being ill, or being forgetful.

- Anti-aging products and services. Assuming that wrinkles, prostate, incontinence, or impotence are a problem for all older adults.

- Name calling such as old man, crypt keeper, little old lady, old bag, biddy, old fogey, etc. It is simply not funny or appropriate! If you hear this being done do your best to correct it! Think of how you would feel, as your time will come...

- Addressing a younger individual who is accompanying an older adult rather than the older adult directly. This often happens at doctors offices, testing centers, hospitals, restaurants, salons, etc. Always address the older adult directly no matter what the circumstances may be. Never assume that they cannot answer!

- Describing forgetfulness as having a "senior moment", as everyone forgets something from time to time. Never make light of forgetfulness or act as if it is reserved for only older adults!

- A real issue I see often- praising an older adult for remembering something. How would you feel if someone praised you for remembering something simple?

- Patronizing language such as cutie, honey, sweetie, love, dear.

-Thinking that older people doing things associated with sterio typically younger people such as listening to popular music, cursing, referring to sexual activity is amusing, shocking, unusual, or surprising.

- Ageism often negatively impacts healthcare aspects and outcomes for older adults. THIS is a big issue that I see way too often! Health care providers who allow ageism to be perpetuated by patronize older people and feeding into stereotypes by - assuming that they are confused, have dementia, or cognitive impairment, must be incontinent, directly advising nursing home placement based on age after injury or hospitalization irrespective of the circumstances, expressed wishes, or abilities (big problem), over or inappropriately medicating, under treating, not treating, or not rehabbing fully (or at all), automatically assuming they will be unsuccessful while in rehab and limiting durable equipment options (putting people in wheelchairs who could use walkers safely, etc), and not listening, considering or valuing expressed wishes of older adults simply based on age.

So what can someone do to prevent issues when in a healthcare setting?

When in the hospital or in a rehab facility older adults need an advocate, an informed family member, friend, or a care manager! I see many examples of mismanagement, mistreatment, and poor / incorrect placement in long term care due to ageism! As stated above, discharge planners often suggest a skilled nursing home simply based on age and not based on ability or care needs; it is rare that anyone needs to be in a skilled nursing home and other options should always be explored first! Skilled nursing home placement is a last resort always! Care managers can assist with advocacy to ensure that client wishes are valued and followed through on properly! Too many individuals end up incorrectly in nursing homes due to staff members showing ageism! Family members are often well intentioned, but simply do not know any better and therefore listen blindly to the discharge planners who at times are not offering the best or most appropriate options from a cost and quality standpoint for the individual. Ageism in these situation not only costs older adults quality of life and happiness, but also costs our health care system as older adults who are misplaced to more expensive care environments run through assets quicker forcing them to have to use entitlement programs earlier.

What can we do as individuals daily to prevent ageism?

- Obtain an advocate if you are an older adult! Planning is key! Ensure that you have someone that you can call upon for emergencies to ensure that your expressed wishes are heard and respected! It is better to be safe than sorry!

- Be proactive and be involved. Educate others and point out kindly when you see examples of ageism in others.

- Set an example and educate our youth to respect and revere older adults! Support multigenerational programs in your community.

- Stop others when you hear them perpetuating demeaning or patronizing language, attitudes, or patterns. If heard stop others from blaming older people for our health care and economic challenges. The terms silver tsunami, senior system drain, or any language implying that our older adult population growing is an epidemic should never be tolerated! I hear this too often! No one deserves to be made to feel bad about simply growing older! If lucky everyone will!

- Speak out against Ageism in the media, cartoons, social media, television, film, and even commercials. The hurtful stereotypes must stop!

- Honestly only we can stop the stereotypes and negativity through a change in daily behaviors and showing a lack of acceptance when presented with these types of challenges. We need to stop older adults from feeling inadequate in our society as it is costing people their lives.

- We need to build older adult friendly communities to allow older adults to work, live, thrive and better age in place! Seniors should never be made to feel that lying about their age is needed to avoid negative perceptions and ill treatment.

- In addition, no one should ever assume that a younger person can do something better simply due to age. This includes technology, computers, etc which is often an area where older adults are assumed to not understand! Guide if needed and be respectful without demeaning.

We can stop ageism one person at a time through education, outreach, and stopping dysfunctional patterns! If you experience any of these behaviors when out and about always do your best to positively correct the behavior and move individuals down the path of effective and respectful communication!

Look for my upcoming podcast with Debbie Miller on this topic coming in June! See Move or Improve with Debbie!


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