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Gerontology 101: Ageism

May 1, 2021

Gerontology 101: Ageism
Cynthia Hancock, PhD
Gerontology Program Director, UNC Charlotte

By now we have all heard of racism and sexism. But somehow Ageism goes unnoticed and is less well understood. Is that ok? Can ageist behaviors and remarks really be that damaging? Do we really understand when we are being ageist? What can we do about it?
Dr. Robert N. Butler (1969) coined the term “ageism” in 1969 and referred to it as “a form of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people simply because they are old.” Butler differentiates between prejudicial attitudes about age and aging, treating people differently because of their age, and institutional practices that perpetuate stereotypes and set the stage for these discriminatory practices. These might sound familiar but do we understand the damage they can do?
Ageism is a different kind of “ism.” Given the opportunity, we will all grow into the group experiencing the prejudice, discrimination, and hurtful systemic structures. When we internalize negative attitudes about older adults and being old (often from early childhood exposure to unflattering images and talk of aging), we end up negatively affecting our own health and longevity. In fact, Dr. Becca Levy’s (2002) research discovered that having negative attitudes towards aging can actually shorten one’s life span by 7.5 years. This shortening comes from the detrimental effects that are a result of the mind-body relationship. When we believe these negative thoughts they in turn have a destructive impact on our physiological state.
Systemic ageism refers to the institutional structures that treat older adults differently. We understand that despite The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967) that older adults are often the last hired and first released from the workplace. This has a direct impact on morale, quality of life, and later life economic security. Leaving work early and/or not finding work later results in smaller pensions, smaller Social Security payments, and smaller savings. Additionally, we have a dearth of trained geriatric medical professionals. There are approximately 7000 trained geriatricians in the U.S. - half of them practice full time. Geriatrics is one of the lower paying medical fields and because of the negative perception of aging and older adults, medical students are less interested in this subfield.
What about our own behaviors? One of the most damaging types of ageism comes in our everyday language. Have you ever said you were having a “senior moment?” Have you heard someone characterize the aging of the population as a “silver tsunami?” Have you referred to the congregate home of an older person as a “facility?” Have you heard someone refer to an older person as “85 years young?” Have you seen a product tout their “anti-aging” effects? The language we use easily produces an “othering” effect which places a group or individual into the “out group” such that they do not feel welcomed, valued, or fully a part of the experience to which they are present. Replacing “old” with “young” makes the gains that come with age invisible. Laura Carstensen (2012) finds that there are benefits that come with age, not the least of which is older people tend to be happier than many of the rest of us!
While most older adults will say they have experienced some form of ageism, the good news is there are opportunities available to help us avoid ageism. The Gerontological Society of America offers an Ageism First Aid online training. The American Society on Aging produced an entire edition of their journal focused on Ageism (2015) that is readily available online. And Ashton Applewhite produces a blog called Yo, Is this Ageist? In the end we need to recognize aging is a diverse experience with losses and gains, just like any other stage of life. We need to adjust our behavior so that we don’t inadvertently set older adults apart such that their quality of life, and eventually our own, is negatively impacted. In the end, we all win and our later years will be the better for it.
Applewhite, A. Yo, Is this Ageist?
Butler, R.N. 2008. Age-ism: Another form of bigotry. The Gerontologist, 9(4 Part 1), 243-246.
Carstensen, L. 2012. Older people are happier. YouTube.
Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. Vol. 39, No. 3, Fall 2015 Ageism in America: Reframing the Issues and Impacts.
Gerontological Society of America. Ageism First Aid.
Levy, B. R., et al. 2002. “Longevity Increased by Positive Self-perceptions of Aging.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83(2): 261–70.

Cynthia Hancock, PhD Gerontology Program Director, UNC Charlotte
William Sweezy
(704) 965-2868