Ageism and the Subtle ways in which we may be engaging in it.

Ageism refers to the stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination towards others, or oneself based on age. Ageism arises when age is used to categorise and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage, and injustice. It is a systemic form of oppression against people of specific age groups. It affects older adults most severely but can also impact young people. 

Ageism can take many forms including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory acts, and institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs. Ageism seeps into many institutions and sectors of society including those providing health and social care, housing, politics, in the workplace, media and the legal system. 

Ageism in Healthcare: 

In healthcare, for example, age determines who receives certain medical procedures or treatments. It affects every aspect of healthcare, from diagnosis to prognosis and influences healthcare policies and workplace culture. Infantilizing patients involves talking to older adults using oversimplified language, terms of endearment, or rhythmic tone of voice a person might use for a child. While people often use ‘elderspeak’ in an attempt to communicate more effectively with older adults, it can be patronising and can reinforce unequal power dynamics between caregivers and people they care for. If a doctor unintentionally treats older and younger patients differently, this would be implicit ageism.

Inaccurate ideas about ageing can lead to inappropriate medical care. For example, assuming that an older patient is less independent than they really are. This ultimately makes people more dependent on others. 

Ageism in Workplace: 

If we look at the workplace, we find that both younger and older people are frequently disadvantaged. While the older generation have limited accessibility to specialised training and education, younger people are often not taken seriously and not given more responsibility. They are denied opportunities to contribute to decision making in the workplace. Refusing to hire a person over or under a certain age, enacting policies that unfairly privilege one age group over another, viewing older people as out of touch, less productive, or stuck in their ways are some ways we are engaging in ‘ageism’. 

Ageism in Social Interactions: 

We practice interpersonal ageism in social interactions- patronizing behaviour used in interactions with older and younger people, treating people as though they are invisible, unintelligent, or expendable based on their age, making ageist jokes that imply someone is less valuable or less worthy of respect, based on their age, making offensive generalizations about a specific generation, e.g., that millennials are entitled, and disregard others concerns or wishes due to their age. 

Hostile ageism is a form of aggressive belief that all teenagers are violent and dangerous or impulsive and reckless. By contrast, benevolent ageism involves someone having patronizing beliefs towards people based on their age, such as that older adults are childlike and weak, and require guidance with basic tasks. Older and younger people have been also stereotyped in public discourse and on social media. 

Internalized age stereotypes contribute considerably to ageism both towards oneself and towards others. Young people internalize the predominantly negative societal views of older people, which shape their self-perceptions of ageing as they grow older. Older adults too hold negative views towards old age and tend to negatively view individuals who are older or more disabled than themselves. This self-directed ageism is a risk for increased morbidity and mortality.

Ageism has serious and wide-ranging consequences for people’s health and well-being. Among older people, ageism is associated with poorer physical and mental health, increased social isolation and loneliness, greater financial insecurity, decreased quality of life and premature death. It intersects and exacerbates other forms of bias and disadvantage including those related to sex, race and disability leading to a negative impact on people’s health and well-being.

Ageism is a systemic form of oppression, but unlike other causes of inequity, such as racism, sexism, or ableism, anyone can experience it. Although it is universal, people do not take ageism as seriously as other forms of inequity. Educational activities that enhance empathy and dispel misconceptions and prejudices. intergenerational understanding and cooperation, commitment from governments and institutions and policy changes which can reduce inequity and discrimination, can help in addressing ‘ageism’. On an individual level- awareness and learning about ‘ageism’, and reflecting on how ageism shapes one’s own thoughts, feelings, and life experiences, and willingness in supporting and advocating for people, in situations where they are struggling to be heard, will help in abating ageism in our society. 


Author: Seema Krishnadas, Counselling Psychologist.

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