Stereotypes hurt!

World Health Organization initiates ageism campaign

Created date

July 26th, 2019
Six older people stand together, laughing and smiling

“Ageism is extremely common. Yet most people are completely unaware of the subconscious stereotypes they hold about older people,” says John Beard, WHO director of Ageing and Life Course.

It seems that not a week goes by without some celebrity, politician, or business leader getting called out for making a racist or sexist comment. 

Making off-handed remarks about race, gender, or religion is guaranteed to stir up controversy and has even led to job termination or forced resignation. 

However, when it comes to observations about a person’s age, specifically old age…crickets. 

For some reason, the same society that vehemently defends against sexism and racism isn’t nearly as bothered by ageism.

Perhaps ageism is considered less offensive because to become “old,” all one must do is live a long life. Everyone has the potential to become a senior, so mocking the characteristics of aging could be seen as mocking the universal human condition. 

An international issue

The World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a study to measure the prevalence of ageism worldwide. It surveyed more than 83,000 people in 57 countries to see how older people are perceived around the world. 

About 60% of respondents reported that older people are not respected. The number fluctuated somewhat between countries, with higher-income nations like the United States showing less respect for their elders and lower-income nations showing more. 

“Ageism is extremely common. Yet most people are completely unaware of the subconscious stereotypes they hold about older people,” says John Beard, WHO director of Ageing and Life Course. “Like sexism and racism, changing social norms is possible. It is time to stop defining people by their age. It will result in more prosperous, equitable, and healthier societies.”

An age-old battle

The term “ageism” was first coined by noted geriatrician Robert Neil Butler in 1969. His book Why Survive? Being Old in America won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize, and he spent his career combatting ageism.

Despite his best efforts, ageism has flourished since Butler’s book was published—due in large part to the fact that people are simply living longer. In 1970, American life expectancy at birth was 70. Today, that number has risen to 78.6. Those extra years, combined with the population swell brought on by the Baby Boom, means the number of older people is exploding.

In 2015, there were 900 million people over the age of 60 in the world. By the year 2050, WHO predicts that number will increase to 2 billion. 

“Society will benefit from this aging population if we all age more healthily,” says Alana Officer, WHO coordinator of Ageing and Life Course. “But to do that, we must stamp out ageist prejudices.”

The impact of ageism is significant—affecting virtually every aspect of life from physical and mental health to diminished employment opportunities and financial well-being to health care. 

“Ageism can take many forms,” says Officer. “These include depicting older people as frail, dependent, and out of touch in the media, or through discriminatory practices such as health care rationing by age, or institutional policies such as mandatory retirement at a certain age.”

The way older people see themselves is just as important as how they are perceived by society overall.

A recent study at Yale University focused on a group of people with a strong genetic risk for developing dementia. It found that those participants who had a positive view of aging were nearly 50% less likely to develop dementia than peers who had a more negative perspective. 

Other studies have shown that people with positive views of aging tend to have better chances of recovering from a disability, live longer, and suffer less from depression and anxiety.

Changing the culture

WHO has identified ten priorities in its effort to combat ageism, including improving international long-term care systems and encouraging innovative civic design to make communities more hospitable to older people. 

Another WHO priority is to facilitate a worldwide shift in how society perceives aging. This will likely take shape as a multitude of small community-based efforts designed to raise awareness. 

In the past decade, the culture has made great strides in showing sensitivity and inclusion toward race and gender. Doing the same thing for age should be just as effective if enough people lead the way by example.

Author and activist Ashton Applewhite, who is in her mid-60s, says she used to fear aging, believing that all she had to look forward to was illness, disability, and loneliness. Once she started to address her own fears and explore the true picture of modern-day aging, her fear vanished. 

Applewhite discovered that most older Americans say they are happy—even those with significant health issues. It changed her outlook and her life.

She is now a leading activist against ageism and has created an online clearinghouse of efforts underway to combat ageism (oldschool.info). 

As Applewhite says in her TED talk, “Aging is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all. Longevity is here to stay. A movement to end ageism is underway. I’m in it, and I hope you will join me.”

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