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To live up to our ideals, we must confront the injustice of ageism

Deb Taylor

If you are not already part of a group disadvantaged by prejudice, just wait a few years — you will be. Unlike all other prejudices, ageism is relevant to every person fortunate enough to make it beyond 60 years of age. Ageism is discrimination based on prejudices about age. It often involves the assumptions that older people are less competent than younger people. Ageism has a huge negative impact on older people, throughout all areas of life.

Right now, our society is not treating older people as equals — in fact, we are marginalizing their participation and minimizing their contributions. To live up to our ideals, we must confront the injustice of ageism.

To illustrate what I’m saying, let me tell you a little story about a woman named Karen. Karen is 72 years old and still lives independently, but is finding it more and more difficult to do so. In her neighborhood, she is seeing new playgrounds being built, hip new restaurants and entertainment going in, and large, multistory houses being built. Young couples and families are all around her and while she enjoys her neighbors, she can’t help but wonder why the focus is only on young people while nothing is being done to make living in the community she’s been in for over 25 years easier for her. Karen is beginning to feel like she is slowly being pushed out of her community.

“A simple crosswalk added a little closer to my house or a bench near the sidewalk down the road is all I would need to make it easier for me to get around my neighborhood. Is that too much to ask?” Karen wonders.

The fastest growing population

Is that too much to ask? In the years to come, Karen will not be the only older person asking this question. At some point, we will all be asking the same question. People aged 65 and older are the fastest growing population in the United States, yet the more they continue to grow, the more they seem to be ignored. As an agency that works almost exclusively with the senior population, our eyes and ears are always open to how they are being talked about and treated within their own communities. It’s sad to admit that we see programs that serve older people as one of the first things to be cut from budgets.

As our example above illustrates, money is being put into parks for children and multistory homes for new families. As you look around, do you see benches, handrails, or ramps being put in for the older population to make life in their communities easier for them and for future generations of older people? One day, you too will be asking this question, which is why it’s crucial to advocate for it right now. Even if it doesn’t directly affect you right now, there’s no doubt about it, it will affect you in the future.

It’s not just in many cities that we are seeing this ageist viewpoint displayed; the media is a large source of the problem as well. In fact, a recent article discussed why seniors should not be on social media. Yet research has proven that engaging in community online can be a great way to ease isolation and loneliness for seniors and we all know it’s a fantastic way to stay in touch with loved ones who don’t live nearby.

The message that these two examples alone send to older people is certainly not one of inclusiveness or acceptance, but rather one of stereotyping and apathy toward the needs of older people.

A tremendous benefit

The reality is that having older people in a community is a tremendous benefit to everyone. You also have the wonderful benefits of intergenerational relationships that children have when they grow up near an older person. Senior Lifestyle reported that children who have a close relationship with an older adult are 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol and 52 percent less likely to skip school  — and those are just a few of the benefits of intergenerational relationships. Another benefit of keeping older people in their own home and community is their engagement within the community. Many seniors choose to spend their free time giving back to their community in the form of volunteering. The whole community benefits from the service of volunteers, and volunteering is an easy way for seniors to avoid being socially isolated.

If older people are such a benefit to have in our communities, why are we still seeing threats to the budgets that support resources for older people? For example, at the federal level, the proposed budget cuts to the Older Americans Act and Community Block Development Grant programs could severely reduce the availability of programs and services that aid older people in remaining at home rather than moving to a nursing or residential facility. And, according to the Minnesota Council on Foundations’ latest statistics, only 0.8 percent of Minnesota’s over 1 billion philanthropic dollars have an intended beneficiary designation of senior/older person.

The reason, as it was mentioned earlier, is because ageism is so prevalent in our society. You don’t have to look very hard to see it. It can be seen in the media, in government, in day-to-day conversation and so much more. We have been convinced as a society that there is a point in time when a person is no longer a value to society and that is just not true.

Ways to fight ageism

Ageism has a huge negative impact on older people, throughout all areas of life. It is time we stop sitting back and accepting the honestly embarrassing treatment of our older population and start speaking up. If not for your older loved ones, for yourself, as we will all grow old one day and wish someone had spoken up for our rights sooner.

Here are a few simple steps you can take right now to fight ageism:

  • Ask questions: When someone is speaking negatively about getting older, ask them why they feel that way. This is an opportunity to breakdown stereotypes and educate them on how they can take action now to combat any assumed negative effects of aging they are afraid of.
  • Watch your language: Because we are constantly inundated with “anti-aging” messaging in the media, it’s easy to let it slip into our everyday conversations without even noticing it. Phrases like, “You look great for your age,” “You don’t look a day over 30,” “I’m too old for that,” are just a few examples of subtle, but very clear statements about getting older with negative connotations.
  • Promote intergenerational activities: Bringing your children to visit grandma or grandpa, participating in an intergenerational volunteer group or committee, or just taking a few minutes to talk to your older neighbor, are just a few simple, but meaningful ways you can let the older people around you know that they are a valued and an important part of your community.
  • Support causes that provide resources to older people: You’ve heard the saying, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” With ongoing threats to the budgets of nonprofits that serve the older population and the need for these resources only growing, we rely on the support of caring individuals more than ever. Do some research and find an organization whose mission you connect with. Then, decide how you want to be a support to them, whether it’s financially, as an advocate of their services, as a volunteer or in some other way. You alone have the power to initiate change in the small choices you make every day.

Let’s continue to try out new ideas and innovative approaches to improve how our community supports older people and responds to aging.

Deb Taylor is the CEO of Senior Community Services and its Reimagine Aging Institute, a nonprofit that helps older adults and caregivers navigate aging to maintain independence and quality of life.

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Comments (3)

Government spending actually tipped toward elderly

"The United States spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children, measured on a per capita basis, with the ratio rising to 7 to 1 if looking just at the federal budget." That's from three reports from Brookings on this subject: Spending on Children and the Elderly by Julia B. Isaacs from 2009. Here's the rest of the executive summary:

"The tilt toward the elderly is stronger in the United States than in many other countries, although all OECD countries spend more, per capita, on the elderly than on children. Viewed from a life-cycle perspective, it is not unfair to spend more on the elderly than on children because all individuals progress from being children to working-age adults to elderly adults. However, our current system of public expenditures is unfair to younger generations, defined as birth cohorts rather than age groups: the vast and growing size of unfunded health and retirement benefits will require today’s children to bear a heavy tax burden when they grow up to be working-age adults. For our children’s sake, we should restrain growth in elderly benefits and pay our share of taxes."

That's the way the system works

"...retirement benefits will require today’s children to bear a heavy tax burden when they grow up to be working-age adults...."

Yes, and when those same working-age adults grow old, they in turn will be cared for by the younger generation. That's the way the system works.

Still ageist

I'm fairly certain that if government spending tilts toward the elderly, it's because Social Security and Medicare account for much of it. That and the fact that health care costs overall are heavily weighted toward the end of life care.

But the message of this piece is still correct. Our culture devalues people as they age, from simple disrespect of older people to laying off workers as they gain seniority and discrimination in hiring.