What is Ageism?

Ageism is a form of discrimination, prejudice, and/or stereotype against an individual or a group based on their age. While this topic often goes unnoticed, ageism has been reported in many aspects of an older adult’s life such as in the workplace, medical settings, interactions with others as well as participating in day-to-day activities.  While ageism is not a new concept, the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan wants to bring awareness to this issue that many older adults face in their lifetime. Addressing ageism is necessary to ensure the well-being and inclusivity of older adults in all aspects of our society.


How Ageism Affects Older Adults

Ageism has been found to have detrimental impacts on older adult’s physical and mental health and well-being. According to the World Health Organization, ageism contributes to social isolation and loneliness which can lead to increased depressive symptoms, poorer mental and physical health, and a lower quality of life. There have been multiple studies conducted in recent years on specific negative effects ageism has on older adults.  Below are a few.

Physical Health Impacts: The American Journal of Public Health published a study in 2020 that found that older adults are at a higher risk of developing chronic health conditions, such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease. These health conditions are induced by the physiological response the body has to stress when an individual experiences ageism.

Mental Health Impacts: In 2019 a study was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine and revealed that individuals who experience age-related discrimination have a higher likelihood of having higher levels of depression and anxiety among older adults than those who have not.  At times, ageism has the ability to lead to self-fulfilling prophecies that impact mental and cognitive functioning in a negative way.

Social Isolation and Loneliness: Ageism impacts an older adult’s social interactions leading to social isolation and loneliness. Ageist attitudes can result in older adults not feeling welcome or as though they do not belong which can have a negative impact on their mental health and even impact cognitive functioning. It is important to realize that ageist attitudes occur on not only an individual level but a societal level as well if communities do not consider how age-friendly they are and make necessary changes to be inclusive to all ages.

Workforce Discrimination: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report in 2017 noting that older adults who possess similar qualifications to their younger counterparts face discrimination when seeking employment. This is in part due to perceptions that older adult professionals are less innovative and adaptive.

Healthcare Disparities: A 2018 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that older adults may receive suboptimal care compared to younger patients due to biases based on age.  These biases have resulted in under-treatment of health conditions, delayed diagnoses, as well as dismissal of the older adult’s medical preferences and treatment goals.

In our discussions with individuals over 60, we heard firsthand things such as:

  • Feeling invisible at work and that their ideas aren't valued.
  • Experiencing a shift in medical care once reaching a certain age.
  • Targeted marketing for anti-aging creams and negative portrayals in the media.
  • Bias can happen at any age, judgment in certain professions, age correlates with skill level.


How to Disrupt Ageism

Now that you know that ageism exists and occurs regularly in society, we encourage you to join us in helping to disrupt ageism. You can make an impact by following some of the suggestions below.

  • Address your own ageist biases and stereotypes. One way to do this is to consider the comments you are utilizing. It’s quite easy to say, “You look good for your age” or “Wow, you are really technologically savvy”. These small comments are also known as microaggressions. Although not usually meant to harm anyone, they can have a negative impact on an individual’s mental health and well-being. 
  • Ensure inclusive policies and practices in your organization. Evaluate your organization’s existing policies and practices to ensure they are age-inclusive. Some things to consider would be flexible work arrangements, mentorship programs, and career development opportunities that support employees of all age groups. Also, consider educational requirements. Many times, entry-level jobs require a degree and many years of experience in the field. It is important to remember that previously, college was not the norm for many. Instead, consider the individual’s transferable skills from their previous jobs or life experiences that count as informal education. People learn and gain skills through multiple avenues and with proper training, many can learn a new position with a little help, no matter their age.
  • Create spaces for intergenerational contact. While some people enjoy age-specific groups or activities, there is power in creating opportunities for people of all ages to enjoy and take part in.  The more that people build connections with others who are different than them, the greater the likelihood of reducing prejudice and discrimination, in this case, ageism. When you have contact with people from different generations, you not only learn about a certain individual, but your perception of aging evolves and may change the stereotypes you once had. 


Reframing Aging

We spoke to five (5) individuals in our community about their experience with aging. This was done in an effort to not only tell individuals’ stories about aging, but to also redefine and celebrate the aging narrative, bringing it into a positive light. We’ll continue to share these stories over time but are so thankful to those who chose to speak with us on this topic and share their experiences. Below are a few of the general themes.

The Freedom to Explore

In talking with all of our interviewees, each one of them mentioned aging as a chance to try new things. Some explained this was rooted in the example of seeing their aging grandparents or neighbors continue to do what they loved and explore new hobbies. Rather than pushing back against the passing of time, they chose to embrace it and in being exposed to this idea, they recognized that getting older was a time truly for them. Some individuals picked up hobbies they had previously done in their youth, others took the chance to dive deeper into existing joys,

Barb shared the following, “These are the best years of my life because of this freedom. There is so much freedom compared to other life stages. When you are young you have to answer to your parents, then if you have your own children your focus is there. Once you get older, you don’t have to worry about judgment. You love your family and time with them of course, but your life no longer revolves around just them, it revolves around you and you no longer worry about what other people think. And you ask yourself, well if I don’t do 'X' now, well when am I going to do it? There’s something so freeing about that.

With autonomy comes the chance to shape your life on your own terms. Aileen mentioned road-tripping around the USA along with her passion for music and the many singing groups she is part of. Diane and Margie both shared views on aging as pushing back on what is "expected" of them at their age. Both chose to stay involved in the workforce after retirement, yet shifted to positions that they felt could allow them to continue to learn and engage with new ideas and populations. Elgin shared his impressive experience as a bass player and continuing to play gigs at the local level. He cites his age as being an asset in his case, he has an established reputation and a strong resume in the community. The discourse around aging is shifting towards one of exploration and joy.  

Embracing an Expanding World

Another common theme shared by our participants was the importance of staying connected to others. Your community of support naturally shifts over time and part of "aging well" as they saw it was embracing these changes. Nothing stays the same, of course, and aging is about going with this flow and continuing to keep up with current issues, trends, and topics. One aging stereotype is that those over 60 may not be driven to do so, but in talking with our interviewees they shared the excitement around this time. Diane is looking forward to an upcoming move to Michigan as something new, and shared, "I do things now for me, I’m not worried about being the oldest person in the room, but it is about the experience as a whole. I enjoy activities like attending concerts and trying new restaurants with my kids, pushing against certain patterns.

A large part of staying engaged in societal norms is taking part in intergenerational experiences. Diane cited exploration of her children's likes alongside them, Barb shared that her dinner table is one shared with individuals from all walks of life ranging in age from 30 to 88! Elgin believes that his community connections help him stay engaged and make a positive impact on his health. Margie explained how she fits in regular visits to younger relatives across the country often, and never saw herself as someone to take part in the stereotypical senior activities such as knitting and bingo. In keeping their communities large, these individuals are continuously exposed to different perspectives of all ages which creates a more welcoming atmosphere for all generations.

Honoring the Passage of Time

Many of those we spoke with cited early experiences with seniors in their lives as influences on how they view aging now. “Getting older, I’m not seeing it in years, I’m seeing it in days”, shared Aileen after explaining how she grew up with all four of her grandparents as prominent fixtures in her life, with them all living well into their 90s and in some cases 100s. Others commented on the richness of stories that seniors can share and being purposeful in seeking these out, with living life comes experience, and with experience comes the ability to leave a living legacy of stories and knowledge.

Many looked to others as inspiration for aging on their own journeys. Aging at times could cause changes in our bodies, however, instead of getting caught up in what you can no longer do, recognize that though adjustments may need to be made to the way you are doing things, this doesn't mean you have to stop doing anything at all. Leaning into aging and the passage of time means accepting the change while continuing to prioritize yourself. For some this means taking care of their bodies and mind, incorporating movement and healthy eating, but the reason for this shifts. Barb shares,"The why changes. When you are young, your why for exercise is likely to stay looking a certain way and perhaps more vanity-focused. As you get older, movement becomes focused on being able to do the things you enjoy. Your why becomes playing on the ground with your grandkids, biking your favorite trail, or gardening on your hands and knees."

Elgin’s view is one of shifting perspective, “I don’t think of the word ‘old’ or seek out age as what shapes a person. I know that there is so much more to an individual than aging, I’m still the same person as my core at 88 as I was at 20, there’s nothing negative about me getting older as long as I’m still myself.” This shifting of the narrative is an important one to remember, there’s so much more to a person than their years. Taking notice when you make a quick assumption or judgment in your interactions can help to disrupt ageism.