“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”   -John Cage

Individuals age 65 or older constitute 13 percent of the total U.S. population (or nearly 40 million people). But, because of the negative view that most Americans hold of aging, these individuals are often lumped together under the heading of “old” and attributed a demeaning set of characteristics.

The most common generalizations include that older people are sickly, unattractive, unproductive, cranky, miserable, less intelligent, more forgetful, and lacking in ability and agency. Understandably, then, most Americans desire to never be “old;” and to never be associated with “those people.” The result is the social distancing of older people, both physically (e.g., placing older adults in retirement homes; avoiding visiting with older adults or including them in social events) and psychologically (e.g., exaggerating the differences between older adults and people one’s own age).

In 1969, Dr. Robert Butler coined the term “ageism” to describe this process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against older persons. The three most devastating consequences of ageism include:

  1. The poor and unfair treatment of older adults that stems from age biases.
    Much like racism and sexism, ageism is a social disease that paints older adults as an “other” and fosters differential (and often unfair) treatment in many areas of life. In the workplace, for example, older job applicants are less likely to be hired, and are viewed as more difficult to train, harder to place into jobs, more resistant to change, less suitable for promotion, and expected to have lower job performances. Older workers typically suffer extended periods of joblessness after being laid off, and when they do find work, it is often at salary levels far lower than what they have earned in the past.
  2. The assault on older individuals’ identities and self-esteems.
    For many, the physical signs of aging (i.e., sagging, wrinkling, graying) have become a social stigma that must be worn daily. In social interactions, “older-looking” people are assumed to be incompetent, frail, and forgetful. Researchers have documented the propensity of younger individuals to use “baby-talk” (i.e., exaggerated tone, simplified speech, and high pitch) when speaking to older adults. Elders are at risk of internalizing these low expectations, which can then lower self-esteem and foster bitterness and resentment. Instead of coming in contact with the harsh judgments of others, some elders become reclusive and completely withdraw from society; they become socially isolated and put themselves at increased risk for negative health outcomes (including depression, alcohol abuse, and suicide).
  3. The underutilization or exclusion of older peoples’ knowledge and insights in our civil discourse.
    As a result of the negative stereotypes associated with growing old, elders are consistently responded to with sympathy and pity—often in the form of charity. While certainly well intentioned (and beneficial for many), this sympathy is a double-edged sword; the kindness it elicits is dripping with condescension and paternalism. Many elders are treated as vulnerable children in need of our protection and good will. And like children, the knowledge, voices, desires, concerns, choices, contributions, and opinions of elders are often devalued or dismissed altogether. “If older people are incompetent has-beens who lack self-sufficiency,” so the thinking goes, “then what could they possibly have to add to our society?” The result is that the vast knowledge and social contributions of older people are overlooked and squandered.

By addressing ageism and transforming the way our society sees older people we can appreciably enhance the lives of elders; and our social debates can benefit from an increased presence of elder wisdom.

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