Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Taking steps to end ageism

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

This year, Older Americans Month urges us to take part in activities that enrich our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. The theme brings to mind tried-and-true activities such as physical exercise, learning new skills, doing creative work, and socializing with others.

I suggest that we consider additional activities, in view of research showing that for each of us, our personal sense of what it means to get old (our self-stereotype of an old person) can affect our health and wellbeing. We need to consider the methods we can employ to help people develop more positive images of what it means to get older.

We are all only partially aware of what our personal self-stereotype of an old person looks like, as some of it is not conscious. But it is likely to lean in a negative direction, in keeping with the ageism in our society — the negative view of older people that shows up everywhere from job discrimination, to anti-aging products, to insulting birthday cards for people with white hair. Ageism is the only “ism” that our society finds acceptable to express and laugh about.

Research studies demonstrate the negative health impacts of ageism. Becca Levy, PhD, a professor at Yale University and well-known expert on this topic, discussed this research recently at the 2018 Friedman Lecture & Awards at Washington University. Compared to older individuals with more-negative age stereotypes, those with more-positive age stereotypes tend to experience better cognitive functioning, reduced risk of disability and cardiovascular events, and increased longevity. Interventions to strengthen positive age stereotypes subliminally have been shown to increase positive self-perceptions of aging, and in turn resulted in improved physical function.

It is time to consider ways to help people improve their self-image of what it means to get older. One place to start would be to look at what we can learn from the liberation movements that sprang up in the ’60s and ’70s in response to racism, sexism, and heterosexism. An element that these earlier movements had in common was a high level of speaking out by group leaders and others about being de-valued and abused by dominant society. Another element was resistance and validation in writing, demonstrations and many new slogans such as, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” “Black is Beautiful,” and “Gay is Good.”

Today, public awareness of the negative impact of ageism is at an amazingly low level. Younger people think they are helping older adults by calling us “dear,” “young lady,” “young man,” but older adults are not sure how to respond. Outspoken talk on ageism can be found in a small number of books, articles and websites. Here in the Midwest, we are not protesting and we are not talking about ageism over lunch or drinks. Most of us are still doing what we can to hide our age. We worry about the future on a private level but rarely voice our feelings and concerns out loud.

One of the methods used in the early days of the women’s liberation movement was called “consciousness raising.” Small groups of six to eight women would meet with a facilitator and each person would have a chance to talk confidentially about personal history and present experience where they were treated in an oppressive way due to their female identity. Most women had taken these experiences for granted and accepted their role as second-class citizens. Having a chance to talk and listen in this way increased our consciousness of what was wrong with the system.

Today, similar groups are meeting to talk about ageism in parts of this country and around the world. Information on how to organize and run these types of groups can be found online. Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism, has shared a document on her website titled, “How to Start a Consciousness Raising Group.” It contains a number of questions that help to get insightful conversations rolling in small groups.

Because of factors on the individual and societal levels that make ageism particularly challenging, it may turn out that ageism will be harder to address than other “isms.” But hopefully that will only spur us on!