Let’s talk about ageism. If you’re over 60, heck, if you’re over 50, there’s a good chance you’ve been on the receiving end of overt or subconscious ageism. Our society is obsessed with youth and often relegates older people to the sidelines.
Gerontologist Robert N. Butler, M.D., founding director of the National Institute on Aging, defined ageism as the “systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old.” In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Why Survive? Being Old in America” he argued that old age can be graceful and very productive. That was in 1975. Nearly 50 years later, it seems the message still hasn’t gotten through.
That’s why ageism activists like Ashton Applewhite, author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism,” are still working to call out and change ageist attitudes — including those of journalists. Whether we realize it or not, even the most diligent reporters can subconsciously perpetuate stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions that foster ageism. In AHCJ’s upcoming webinar on Oct. 13 at 12p.m. ET, Applewhite will explore ageism in society and explain how journalists can avoid ageist stereotypes in their reporting and depict aging in more accurate and nuanced ways.
Unfortunately, the health care system isn’t immune to instances of explicit or implicit ageism, which negatively affects the health and well-being of older patients. This leads to serious and long-term consequences according to the World Health Organization. And whether they realize it or not, journalists can often perpetuate these myths and ageist attitudes.
“Age is often used to categorize and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage and injustice and erode solidarity across generations. This is ageism: the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or ourselves based on age,” according to the World Health Organization. It manifests in employment and housing discrimination, marginalization, social isolation, loneliness, infantilizing elders, especially in health care settings, elder abuse, the media and everyday interactions.
One reason is that Western culture (and increasingly other cultures) tend to focus more on looking and acting young and less on experience and wisdom, according to psychologist Dale Archer, M.D. That’s one reason the WHO and the United Nations launched the Decade of Healthy Aging, with a focus on combating ageism, creating more age-friendly environments, improving care integration and developing alternatives to traditional long-term care. Her work against ageism has put Applewhite on the U.N.’s list of the Healthy Aging 50 — “Government, civil society, industry and academic leaders transforming the world to be a better place to grow old.”
Science and medicine have done wonders to advance the health and well-being of older people. The average American lives to be about 78.8 years old; in Japan, it’s 84.4 years, according to a report from The Commonwealth Fund. (The serious issues with cost, access, and quality of health care in the U.S. impacting longevity is a topic for another story). But we do know that ageism can shorten lives, thanks to the work of researchers like Becca Levy, Ph.D. and others who carry on the legacy of Butler. That’s just one reason why it’s important for journalists not to buy into the stereotypes and misconceptions about aging and push back against ageism, one story at a time.
- OldSchool.info — anti-ageism clearinghouse with many resources and tools including this language and style guide
- Reframing Aging — an initiative from the Frameworks Institute, designed to improve the public’s understanding of aging and what it means in society.
- This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, by Ashton Applewhite
- Breaking the Age Code:How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live, by Becca Levy, Ph.D.
- Ageism in medicine is a pressing problem – an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal