Old Habits Die Hard: The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Ageism

Most of us have been told at some point to respect our elders. Opening doors, assisting in street transit, carrying groceries — all of these social niceties are expected to be paid specifically to older members of society. Respect for elders seems to occur universally as a cultural norm. Korean culture joyfully celebrates the one’s sixtieth birthday as the passage into old age, while honorific suffixes such as “-ji” in Hindi and “mzee” in Swahili indicate longstanding cultural respect for one’s elders. Some Ecuadorian cultures believe that their elder shamans, or mengatoi, become powerfully magical as they age (Jacobs). China even made it illegal to neglect one’s parents, outlining the legal duties of adult children to include frequent visitation and “occasional greetings” (Wong). Older people in America engage in vigorous self-advocacy, making the AARP one of the largest interest groups in the nation at nearly forty million members.

Happy Parishioners. Source: Joonas Tikkanen, Creative Commons.

So why then does society reflect the exact opposite of these norms? Old people are treated as feeble, unfortunate beings who are shown courtesy in public and yet face widespread discrimination. Both pernicious and insidious, ageism is defined as “the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age; [forms of ageism can include] prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs” (World Health Organization). Ageism is an “ism” that is just as socially impactful as other forms of discrimination, yet the topic is rarely addressed and often disregarded. Despite lack of discursive engagement, ageism is a unique type of social discrimination in that it can transcend all other human identities. The process of aging affects every human being regardless of one’s sexuality, race, and political ideology. Most of us will eventually pass the cursed line that society demarcates between youth and old age and must suffer from the hostile, deeply discriminatory system that we ourselves once benefited from in our youth — and what a pervasive system it is. Surveys show that a whopping 80% of people over sixty have experienced some form of ageism (Dittman). Tad Friend supplies this neatly unpacked explanation in an article published by the New Yorker:

Like the racist and the sexist, the ageist rejects an Other based on a perceived difference. But ageism is singular, because it’s directed at a group that at one point wasn’t the Other—and at a group that the ageist will one day, if all goes well, join. The ageist thus insults his own future self.”

The Long Road. Source: Hansel and Regrettal, Creative Commons.

In just two years, it is predicted that more people will be over the age of sixty-five than under the age of five for the first time in Earth’s history (United States Census Bureau). In fact, according to the United Nations, the number of older persons is increasing more rapidly than other age group. This phenomenon is known as the “graying” of a population, and constitutes an urgent issue for affected countries. As people age, they become less able to physically care for themselves and usually exit the workforce at some point to retire for the latter part of their lives. As health conditions do generally worsen with age, the demand for medical and/or personal support services grows as older people continue to age and retire.

This becomes an issue when the size of a country’s workforce becomes insufficient to fill the demands of service-dependant older people. In nations with large workforces, the opposite issue — lack of opportunity for employment — still disproportionately harms older people. Many industries, particularly in America, push out older applicants and terminate veteran employees in favor of younger options. As industry culture has begun to tilt in favor of youth, older people have experienced a massive amount of workplace ageism. Nearly 65% of Americans between the ages of 45 and 60 had either seen or experienced age-based discrimination in the workplace (AARP). This may seem like a trivial issue, but unemployment is a dangerous state to endure at advanced ages. Worsening health conditions go hand in hand with both lower income and increased age; the combination of these factors can be fatal.

An elderly Sudanese womangets ready to receive her ration of emergency food aid.
Elderly Woman Receives Emergency Food Aid. Source: Tim McKulka/UN Photo, Creative Commons.

So why does ageism even exist? Princeton researchers found that most ageist arguments stem from issues with consumption (old people already consume too many scarce resources), identity (old people try to act younger than they are), or succession (old people had their turn, now they should move out of the workforce/society to make space for the new generation). All of these issues — consumption, identity, and succession — frame humanity in a way that associates one’s value with their usefulness to society. However, human beings should not be defined by their utility. Simply put, old people exist. They form one of the largest populations on the planet, and are rapidly growing. We cannot deny older people the dignity that we (supposedly) award to all else simply because they are perceived as “useless” to society. Human rights cannot and should not be applied conditionally.

This unfortunate phenomenon is surrounded by the related topic of disability. According to the 2016 Disability Statistics Annual Report, 35.4% of Americans over the age of 65 had a disability, which is over three times higher than the rate of working-age (18-64) Americans at 10.4%. Like advanced age, disability is also perceived as a barrier to social utility. Age and disability together form a potent one-two punch of compound discrimination, making older people with disabilities extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

An old woman sits at a window next to a yellow flower in a vase.
Untitled. Source: Bas Bogers, Creative Commons.

Elder abuse, as it is termed, is widespread but often under-reported. National rates are reported to be around 10%, though researchers at the prominent New York Elder Prevention Society found self-reported rates of elder abuse to be up to 24 times higher than the documented rate. Only 3% of  older people in New York officially reported any form of elder abuse, though nearly three-quarters self-reported that they have experienced neglect or financial, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. This number may be inflated by the instances where individuals experience multiple types of abuse, making exact numbers more difficult to isolate. The most common forms of elder abuse are financial and physical/sexual abuse, which can occur concurrently.

Nursing homes, meant to protect and nurture their patients, are actually one of the most dangerous environments for vulnerable older persons with disabilities. The Nursing Home Abuse Center reports a nursing home abuse rate of about 44%, and a neglect rate of nearly 95%. Elder abusers are rarely prosecuted due to stigma, social isolation of the victim, lack of support services, inaccessible reporting, and proximity of abusers. Relatives constitute about 90% of elder abuse perpetrators, which often makes the victim reluctant to prosecute their own spouses, adult children, or other relatives.

Skin. Source: Victor Camilo, Creative Commons.

Direct abuse and neglect of the elderly is widely sustained by the deeply pervasive public attitude of hostility towards aging. Beauty products are regularly marketed as “anti-aging,” covering up the crows’ feet, varicose veins, liver spots and silver hairs that inevitably accompany a well-lived life. Most of the stigma is inevitably directed at aging women, as femininity carries the heavy burden of visual appeal. The cosmetic surgery industry is booming as women are pressured to appear as veritable supermodels long after the glow of youth has faded. Social media surrounds us with visuals of gorgeous, toned, smooth-skinned women who never seem to age a day, while the rest of us have to keep up with whatever products, surgeries or diets we can find.

Gone are the days where women past a certain age could relax into frumpy mom jeans and orthopedic tennis shoes without fearing judgment. Modern grandmothers now face the strenuous expectation to maintain a Helen Mirren-esque figure with the style and poise of Meryl Streep. Notably, these two women are some of the very few well-known older actresses; both have had to work tirelessly to achieve that notoriety, considering Streep’s record-breaking two-dozen Academy Award nominations and Mirren’s prestigious Triple Crown of Acting that has only ever been awarded to 23 people. It’s undeniable that Hollywood has a major problem with representation of women over thirty. Men in the acting industry get a few extra decades of “silver fox” stardom while women face rejection at first wrinkle.

An older couple links arms as they carry bags and walk together.
Lean on Me. Source: Amro, Creative Commons.

Ageism sometimes feels like an inescapable facet of society, but it shouldn’t have to be. Encouraging and celebrating old age will eventually serve to benefit everyone, as positive attitudes towards aging have been shown to increase lifespan by nearly eight years. Elderly people have had autonomy and dignity systematically stolen from them through attitudes of derision and pity– they are constantly viewed as either cantankerous burdens to society or doddering, wretched old fools.  One’s social contribution or lack thereof should not be a determinant in preserving human dignity. After all, human rights are for all humans, right?

From here, we have to do better on a global scale. Any success in reducing ageism requires confrontation of our own internal prejudices, since youth are the major perpetrators of age-based discrimination. The efforts we make today in reducing oppression for older individuals will directly impact our future experiences. Psychologists have found three major components essential to active engagement in fighting ageism:

  1. Social integration
    • Often, elderly individuals are unable to fully participate in society due to social hostility and lack of accessibility. Many of us have not been educated on topics relating to older people, and some even may find engaging with the elderly to feel uncomfortable. Fuller integration into society would foster respect for the aged community, as increased public presence of older individuals would promote culture of tolerance.
  2. Reduce cultural shame
    • Current media culture is incredibly toxic towards older people, and portrays the elderly in a negative light far too frequently. Advertisements should attempt to portray older people with respect to their human dignity, rather than the foolish, bumbling representations that are far too common in current media.
  3. Accept aging as a fact of life
    • Ageism often stems from personal fears of death and dying. This fear is incredibly common but damaging to both society at large and to individuals who hold them– ironically, negative attitudes towards aging have been shown to decrease lifespans. To combat this, old age should be normalized and celebrated.

Clearly, ageism is not something that can be eradicated at all once. It requires active change on both an institutional and personal level, as age-based discrimination is deeply ingrained in cultural attitudes and everyday interactions. Monumental as it may seem, ageism is still an issue that we must tackle if we ourselves are to experience old age with the dignity that all humans deserve. So remember to always respect your elders, whether out of regard for human dignity, self-preservation, or both.