When I was growing up, I was convinced my mom had found the fountain of youth. She was 38 years old for almost ten straight birthdays. Not 40. Not even 39. Nope – 38 years old was the number. She reached it and it was as if time, for her, stood still. She was never going to be “over the hill.”
As a teenager, disbelief set in. I needed to properly investigate. One glance at her driver’s license and she aged nearly a decade.
My mom’s scheme introduced me to ageism. Ageism, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people on the basis of their age. My mom was being ageist against her future self. She implicitly felt that being older would be worse and so she tried to avoid it. She was apparently not aware of the happiness curve that shows older people as happier than those of middle-age.
Perniciousness of Ageism
Last week, WHO launched its global campaign to combat ageism. The organization has identified ageism as the biggest barrier to creating the world we all hope to grow old in. With their report and short video, they make a compelling case that ageism is destructive to all of us, but especially the young and old. For older people, ageism is associated with a shorter lifespan, poorer physical and mental health, slower recovery from disability and cognitive decline. Ageism reduces older people’s quality of life, increases their social isolation and loneliness (both of which are associated with serious health problems), restricts their ability to express their sexuality and may increase the risk of violence and abuse against older people.
Globally, one in two people are ageist against older people. The pandemic revealed ageism, including instances where health care was rationed for young people.
Ageism Against Ourselves
According to WHO, ageism can be institutional, interpersonal, or self-directed. Fortunately, there are a number of people – though we will need millions more – fighting against institutional ageism in the United States. Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, Dr. Bill Thomas, founder of the Eden Alternative, and Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks and curator of Old School, have been leading crusaders for anti-ageism for years, if not decades. Paul Irving, Chair of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, and Kerry Hannon, author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+, have been vocal against ageism in the workplace.
But an area we all need to be especially careful of being ageist is against ourselves. This is self-directed ageism. When we buy into the negative stereotypes of being older, we are more likely to live into those stereotypes and reinforce interpersonal and institutional ageism. For example, if we believe that we can’t learn new things past a certain age, we’re less likely to even try.
Pushing back on these stereotypes is critical in the fight against self-directed ageism. Part of it is a mindset. We can do more as we age, but many of us are also healthier. It some respects 60 is the new 40. Sufferfesters in their 50s are conquering physical challenges noteworthy for people decades younger. There is an opportunity to dispel some of the stereotypes of old.
The Power of Intergenerational Relationships
One of the remedies for ageism, according to WHO, is to increase intergenerational interactions. This has been a passion of Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org and author of How To Live Forever, for decades. He, along with people like Donna Butts, CEO of Generations United, have highlighted the importance of intergenerational relationships and researched the benefits. Their findings show that these relationships elevate both young and old.
I value my intergenerational relationships. During our recent spring break road trip, my family and I mapped our route to spend time with friends who are decades older. The pandemic made all of us especially value our time together.
Role of Place and Ageism
Place matters in the context of ageism. Studies suggest that ageism is especially strong in the United States, with the Northeast and Southeast particularly steeped in it. New Jersey, Connecticut and Mississippi rank as the most ageist, whereas Utah, Alaska and Colorado are rated the least age-biased.
But where we choose to live within our regions and metropolitan areas may matter even more. Some places foster intergenerational interaction either through living with or near people of different ages, such as age-friendly apartment buildings or roommate arrangements such as through Nesterly. Some places have third places that naturally bring people of all ages together. Conversely, some age-restricted or senior living settings can be located separate and apart from people of other ages. Sadly, ageism can also occur within these environments where older people can be ageist against those who are just a bit older.
Mom Gets the Last Laugh
My mom no longer pretends to be 38 and she is less willing to discriminate against her future self. In fact, I am the one accused of being ageist. Several years ago, my mom was contemplating upgrading to a digital camera. I tried to persuade her it would be too complicated for her at her age. She proved me wrong, and has the pictures to prove it. Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.
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