Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Internalized Ageism – Discriminating against ourselves as we age

Written by Michele Dinman, MPH, project coordinator for the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health

Rochelle Scherrer, left, and Michele Dinman, right, are all smiles after tap dancing in a “Dancing Thru Life” performance.

As my friends and I are reaching the age of 60, I notice them making statements such as “It’s too late for me to learn how to pay bills on-line,” “I’m definitely getting older – I keep losing things,” or “I’m too old to change careers.” At times I have also attributed my lack of knowledge and skills or lack of motivation to my age. We have all heard about the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination of  ageism in terms of discrimination in the workplace (forced retirement or not being promoted due to age), in healthcare (exclusion from clinical trials or life-saving measures because of age), or in the media (anti-aging ads and ads neglecting to show older people using technology), but we don’t often discuss the “prejudice against our feared future self” – internalized ageism. As we age, we not only can experience internalized ageism that we direct toward ourselves, but we can also hold biases toward other older adults who are the same age as we are.

A lot of the stereotypes that adults associate with older people have been internalized from childhood. We have all read children’s stories where the wicked witch is portrayed as a mean older woman, such as “Hansel and Gretel”, and stories which show grandmothers as being sickly or frail such as “LittleRed Riding Hood.” Research has shown that children start to identify age stereotypes from their culture by age six years old. Media and advertisements have increased the ageist belief in girls, that as they age, they will have to prevent wrinkles or color their hair to be more beautiful and accepted. By the time we reach an older age, we have grown up constantly hearing and internalizing negative stereotypes about older people and then we realize that we are now at the same age associated with those stereotypes.  We start to think that the stereotypes pertain to us too since we are also “old.”

Andrew Steward, in his article “Toward interventions to reduce internalized ageism”, explains why internalized ageism, which is a type of implicit ageism, is so harmful. We are usually not aware that we are even experiencing it, and its influence on ourselves and other people, so we are unlikely to change our behavior. Others describe the effects of this type of ageism, which can cause us, as we get older, to fight visible signs of aging or to stop associating with people who are the same age as us. It can even cause us to perform poorly on a task such as a cognitive aptitude test when we are afraid of validating negative stereotypes that older people can’t learn new skills or improve their memory. According to the World Health Organization’s 2021 Global Report on Ageism, this is a type of internalized ageism called “stereotype threat”.

Becca Levy, PhD, in her book “Breaking the Age Code”, writes about another harmful effect of internalized ageism. It can cause younger people to distance themselves from older people because seeing an older person causes them to fear getting older.  She says that internalized ageism can also affect our health as we age, and that younger people who believe more-negative aging stereotypes are more likely to have a heart attack or experience other cardiovascular conditions after age sixty than those who believe more positive aging stereotypes.

Learning all of this has made me more aware of my own ageism and what I can do to help me, and my friends, reduce our negative feelings regarding getting older. Becca Levy demonstrates the ABC Method to help us shift from “an age-declining mindset to an age-thriving one” by increasing awareness of our own age beliefs, blaming ageism itself and not aging, and challenging and calling out negative age beliefs instead of ignoring them.

Growing older is something to be celebrated and embraced instead of feared. It is important to remember that older adults are not a homogeneous group and each of us will experience aging differently from each other. A study by Becca Levy has shown that people with a more positive self-perception of aging live 7.5 years longer than people who perceive aging as a negative experience. I will remind myself and my friends about that when we are blaming all the issues that we are having solely on our age.