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Ageism in 2021

Jul 16, 2021

The best teacher in my formal education was my high school American History teacher.  She was amazing—she really brought history to life for me.  Prior to her class, any social studies class I attended was an activity to tolerate, rather than a window into our past with the resulting lesson of how the past impacts society today.  At the end of the school year, this amazing and capable teacher was forced to retire because of her age.  The best teacher in my life was lost to future students because of a perceived limitation brought on by her age.

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been hearing an insurance ad on the radio.  The announcer says that if you ask your Nana about insurance, she will suggest that you cover your furniture in plastic to insure against damage.  The message is clear—your Nana is too old and uninformed to make an educated decision about insurance.

On social media, the phrases #okayboomer and #boomerremover have trended as stereotypes of the “Baby Boomer” generation have been strengthened by hate-filled anecdotes.

The term “ageism” has been in use since the 1960s. According to Merriam-Webster, ageism is prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly. Ageism is very common throughout our society. While many other forms of discrimination are actively being investigated and exposed for the harm they cause, ageism is often accepted and/or ignored. 

How many times have you heard someone say they’re having a senior moment?  When we are in our 20-30s and something slips our mind, no one suggests that our memory is faulty. Yet, at some point, we suddenly start blaming age on a lapse in memory.  (This is not to suggest that dementia and memory loss do not occur. However, recent studies have indicated that about 14% of adults over the age of 70 have some form of dementia.  That means that 86% of 70+ adults do not have dementia!)

The past year has brought our society’s ageism to the forefront as the U.S. responded to Covid. As it was discovered that people over the age of sixty were more susceptible to covid, how many people, including policy makers, dismissed this risk since older people have already had a full and active life?  Some people made it abundantly clear that the loss of an older life was an acceptable loss if it meant others would not be inconvenienced.

The World Health Organization (WHO) published a “Global Report on Ageism” earlier this year. In the document, WHO reports that institutionalized ageism against older people is prevalent in healthcare systems, workplaces, financial institutions, media and more.   For example, a study in the U.S. found that medical staff were more likely to withhold life-sustaining therapies as the patient’s age increased.

The repercussions of ageist attitudes are serious and significant.  It has been found that discrepancies in care and service can lead to poor mental health, earlier death, risky health behaviors, social isolation, loneliness, and other negative outcomes.

Ageism is not limited to older adults.  Stereotypes negatively impact people of all ages. We hear stories of irresponsible young people every day. Young adults can have difficulty finding a good job because of negative stereotypes about their age group. The WHO recommends policy changes, education, and intergenerational activities to help bridge the gap and help us all see each other for the unique and special people that we are—rather than the stereotype.

The World Health Organization 2021 “Global Report on Ageism” can be downloaded from https://www.who.int/teams/social-determinants-of-health/demographic-change-and-healthy-ageing/combatting-ageism/global-report-on-ageism.