Until recently, I never saw the connective thread. But I now realize I’ve fallen prey to what’s referred to as “everyday ageism,” meaning I was reinforcing the stereotype that old is bad (and young is good). I’d absorbed the negative messages about being older.
Earlier this year, the University of Michigan in conjunction with AARP reported the findings of its National Poll on Healthy Aging, which described how those of us ages 50 to 80 (for the record, I am 60-plus) are bombarded with negative and hostile stereotypes.
These include dismissive quips about older people not properly using a smartphone or social media, jokes about us losing our memory or hearing, and the proliferation of “anti-aging” messages in advertising, to name just a few. The poll examined older adults’ experiences with nine different forms of ageism, which fall into three buckets: exposure to ageist messages (like advertising), ageism in interpersonal relationships (what friends or family say) and internalized ageism (negative beliefs we absorb).
According to the poll, “more than 80 percent of those polled say they commonly experience at least one form of ageism in their day-to-day lives.” And 40 percent said they routinely experience three or more forms of this everyday ageism, said Erica Solway, associate director of the University of Michigan poll.
The negative impacts of age-based discrimination in employment, housing and health care aren’t new, Solway said. But much less had been known, she said, about the “discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping” that older people routinely encounter in their daily lives — ageism that is not only everyday but casual. This new polling data suggests that those who report ageism in their day-to-day lives had even worse physical and mental health deficits than those who reported experiencing institutional discrimination, like in housing, health care or employment matters.
For instance, according to the World Health Organization, older people who think they are a burden to others perceive their lives to be less valuable, putting them at heightened risk of depression and social isolation. Also disconcerting, the WHO reports research showing that older adults “who hold negative views about their own aging, do not recover as well from disability and live on average 7.5 years less than people with positive attitudes.”
Ageism may be less overt than other “isms” but not less impactful, said Jonathan Zur, president and chief executive of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, a nonprofit group that provides training to schools, businesses and communities to help them become more equitable and inclusive. He explained that making assumptions about someone based on their age — or even using terms like “grandma” or “old man” — may not seem as painful as other prejudices, but certainly can have a negative consequence. In the workplace, Zur said, this can include lower rates of engagement and higher turnover, or older workers who are unfairly overlooked or dismissed.
Alison Bryant, AARP’s senior vice president for research, also pointed out that the effect is incremental.
“Over time, like any other ‘ism,’ [ageism] has an effect on how people see themselves, and that has an effect on people’s . . . health,” she said. “The more people run into ageist thinking and age discrimination, the more they start to second guess their abilities, get depressed and generally have more negative attitudes.”
Older adults who experienced more forms of ageism were less likely to rate their health as excellent or very good, research has found, and were more likely to have a chronic health condition (such as diabetes or heart disease), and to report symptoms of depression.
When I asked friends over 50 whether they had encountered ageism in their everyday lives, I sure got an earful.
In job interviews, they reported being told things like, “We are definitely looking for someone younger,” even though that’s illegal under federal age-discrimination laws.
On the social front, women, in particular, commented that they’d become “invisible” to potential suitors. “I call it the vanishing,” one female friend in her 60s told me.
In my own case, on a (socially distant) date recently, the first question the younger guy asked me was: “Are you planning to retire?” He barely knew what I did for a living! Still his query ate at me: Is that how I’m seen? Is that who I am?
It’s not only in personal interactions that we encounter this kind of casual ageism. The Michigan poll reported that the more time we spend watching television, browsing the Internet or reading magazines, the more likely we are to experience everyday ageism, meaning negative — and incorrect — images of older people such as those depicting us as frail or dependent, or unable to use new tech devices or social media platforms.
“It is important to recognize the role of the media in perpetuating ageist attitudes,” Solway said, adding that she includes advertising for all those “anti-aging” products (creams, serums and moisturizers) that implies aging must be avoided at all costs.
Bryant pointed out another issue with media portrayals impacting us. “Almost half of the population is over 50 but older adults are only shown in 15 percent of images,” from the movies to advertisements. “You don’t even see yourself.”
What to do? The first step is increasing awareness. Jokes about senior moments, age-based “compliments” and teasing about tech ineptitude are so routine and often well-intentioned that we don’t notice or just take them in stride, assuming that such bias is acceptable.
A friend, a woman who is 68, said that she has tended to laugh off ageist jokes, not taking them as seriously as sexist or racist comments. Another friend, also 68, says she has now begun to notice — and it bothers her. At stores and other commercial establishments, she said, “I’m often addressed as ‘young lady.’ I detest that. I’m 68, with gray hair. Clearly, NOT a young lady.”
“Speak up when [you] see ageist messages or hear ageist words or phrases,” Zur said, so the speaker recognizes the issue.
Solway also urges older people to “disrupt” everyday ageism by “accepting the things that may change as we get older, which could include embracing a slower pace and fewer responsibilities, and appreciating the longevity and significance of our long-standing relationships.” It’s about acknowledging the positives that accrue with our years.
She pointed out that the Michigan poll also showed that more than 4 in 10 respondents said they feel more comfortable being themselves as they’ve gotten older and that they have a strong sense of purpose. Two-thirds said their life is better than they thought it would be.
From that perspective, it’s also helpful to start thinking about older people who are positive role models. An Internet search turned up so many sterling examples among folks 60 or older, including journalist Katie Couric, actors Helen Mirren and Denzel Washington, singer Gloria Estefan, poet Louise Gluck, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in literature, infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and for some, President-elect Joe Biden.
Personally I’ve changed my behaviors. No more of those “funny” ageist birthday cards. No more age-related compliments. No more scrubbing my résumé. And the hardest: no more lying on dating apps. No, I’m not 59, I’m 63. Until my next birthday, when I’ll be 64.
Steven Petrow, a contributing columnist, is the author of the forthcoming “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I’m Old.” Follow him on twitter @stevenpetrow.