Speaking Up About Ageism

May 12, 2017

by Gloria C. Gordon, PhD, psychologist and co-founder of STL Village

This year’s theme for Older American’s Month, “Age Out Loud,” invites me to speak up loudly about ageism—the “ism” that refers to how our society stereotypes and treats older adults.

As children we absorb and internalize the way we see older adults, including in advertising and the media. The picture we each get of what it means to be an old person will then affect our adult life in major ways.

Gloria Gordon

One of my challenges at age 93 is to respond constructively when people address me in an ageist way—a way that shows they see me as one of those old folks, instead of seeing me as an actual person.

Two years ago a kindly receptionist at a busy medical office welcomed me with, “What time is your appointment, dear?” I sent a letter about ageism to the office administrator, who responded in a positive way. At another office a highly recommended specialist greeted me with a cheery “Hello, young lady.” Toward the end of the visit I let him know in a friendly way that his greeting felt like ageism to me. He was surprised and said that other patients seem to like it. I cautioned him that times are changing.

When I turned 80, I began to wonder about ageism. I found that a body of research on the subject had started 10 years earlier, led by Professor Becca Levy, a Yale psychologist. She and her many colleagues have continued to build a field of study that explores the impact of ageism on our physical and mental functioning.

As children we adopt positive and negative perceptions of older people by the time we are four to five years old. When we become adults, this childhood picture serves as what Levy calls our self-stereotype of what it means to be old. It usually includes both positive and negative qualities, for example, friendly, wise, lively, as well as grouchy, stubborn, and weak. The typical image in our society is mainly negative. We are only partly aware of our own self-stereotype, rather than being fully conscious of it.

Here is the tricky part. When we as children absorb ageism from society, we turn that stereotype outward toward adults. It does not apply to us. But later on we see this picture as applying to our own future older self. We try to hide our age. We tell jokes about old people. We give one another insulting birthday cards.

The turmoil in how we deal with aging and ageism makes it hard for us as adults to identify and resist ageism at a personal and societal level.

Levy points out that when adults face ageism they have no history of resisting it, and are likely to accept it without question. With sexism or racism the story is different. Sexism and racism are directed at children from an early age onward. Those children can get a start in learning how to resist sexism or racism later in life.

Growing older is, of course, full of major challenges. As the Bette Davis phrase goes, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”  But adding a load of internalized ageism to the obvious challenges of aging adds an extra burden and makes growing older much rougher than it needs to be. Levy and colleagues have documented the size of this extra burden in several studies. Here are three examples:

  • In one population study, people with a more positive self-stereotype of aging lived an average of seven and a half years longer than people with a more negative self-stereotype of aging.
  • In another study, older people with a more positive self-stereotype were 44% more likely to recover from a health episode that affected their activities of daily living.
  • In an experiment using subliminal stimulation on a television screen, older adults exposed to positive words such as “spry” and “creative” performed significantly better in certain physical ways—such as getting out of a chair or signing their name—than those that were not exposed to positive words.

Clearly, ageism is a significant unhealthy factor in our society–both on a broad cultural level and on the level of our individual self-stereotypes. Fortunately, the large cohort of baby boomers moving into their 60s is adding new voices that increase our awareness of ageism. More books, articles and websites are dealing with issues of aging and ageism and some consciousness-raising groups are starting, similar to groups that were active during the women’s liberation movement.

Research shows that the majority of people over 50 want to continue living at home as we get older. We prefer to continue taking part in our communities, rather than getting shunted off to the side and disappearing because we are old. In my lively, diverse, part of St. Louis, I co-founded and belong to a member-driven organization called STL Village. Based on a widely-used model, it brings together households who choose to live at home while staying connected with neighbors and civic activity. In our Village we are redefining what aging means for us; we are not trying to hide our age, but rather embrace it as we work, grow, have fun, and support one another.

To learn more about STL Village, visit their website stlvillage.org or give them a call at (314) 802-0275.


This post is part of the “Older Adults & Aging” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.

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