Can we beat ageism?

Are we doing enough to fight age-related discrimination? Our society has gotten the message that it’s wrong to discriminate against someone based on their race, sex or sexual preference. So why is it still okay to treat someone unfairly because of their age? Half of all Canadians agree that age discrimination — or ageism, for short — is the most tolerated social prejudice, according to the The Revera Report on Ageism.

Worse yet, nearly two thirds of people over 66 report they’ve been treated unfairly because of their age. Eight in 10 respondents agree that people age 75 and over aren’t as valued as younger generations — and they’re often ignored or overlooked.

The survey was conducted online by Leger Marketing on behalf of Revera Inc — a provider of seniors’ accommodation, care and service — in partnership with the International Federation on Ageing (IFA). The survey had just over 1500 respondents and included Canadians aged 18-32 (Gen Y), 33-45 (Gen X), 46-65 (Boomers), 66-74 (Seniors) and 75+ (Older Seniors). The goal: to learn more about people’s attitudes towards aging as well as their awareness of and experience with ageism.

What forms did this discrimination take? According to the survey:

– 41 per cent of respondents age 66 and over say they have been ignored or treated as invisible.
– 38  per cent felt people have assumed they have nothing to contribute.
– 27 per cent say people have assumed they were incompetent.

In addition, 19 per cent reports others assume they are hard of hearing and 16 per cent felt others assumed they had memory loss. Sadly, 12 per cent report being treated as a child. More than half of respondents (56 per cent) said this discrimination came from people who are younger than they are — compared to just 3 per cent who said they faced ageism from people who were older than they are.

Ageism isn’t just an issue that individuals face. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, ageism is more than stereotyping and negative attitudes. It also involves “a tendency to structure society based on an assumption that everyone is young, thereby failing to respond appropriately to the real needs of older persons.” 

That aspect of aging was reflected in the survey results: Eighty-seven per cent of respondents feel that government-funded programs do not take the needs of seniors into account and 27 per cent report experiencing ageism from the government.

Unfortunately, the health care system isn’t faring much better. One third of respondents report facing ageism in the health care system or from a health care professional. Nearly 80 per cent of older adults say they’ve had a health concern dismissed as “aging.”

Employers aren’t immune to ageism either: 20 per cent of respondents report they’ve faced age-related bias at work. If you remember our previous articles on ageism in the workplace, many older workers face disadvantages such as missing opportunities for advancement or training, layoffs and discrimination during the job hunt. A more recent Ipsos Reid poll found that ageism is alive and well when it comes to hiring practices. Not all employers are able to see beyond the misconceptions surrounding age to recognize the wealth of experience and expertise these candidates can bring to their companies.

Perhaps the most insidious consequence of ageism is its connection to elder abuse. Negative attitudes towards aging and older adults makes it easier to rationalize physical, emotional and financial abuse, warns the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (CNPEA). A lack of resources to help abused seniors is another form of ageism.

“It’s troubling that ageism is so pervasive, in a time when society needs to evolve to meet the needs of an aging population,” said Jeffrey C. Lozon, President and Chief Executive Officer of Revera Inc, in a recent press release. “Canada’s baby boomers are growing older.  Building an age-inclusive society must be a top priority for all of us as our demographics change. We can’t allow misconceptions and prejudices to get in the way of excellence in service to older people nor recognizing their social and economic contributions.”

So what are we going to do about it?

Sadly, one third of Canadians in the Revera survey admit to treating someone differently because of their age — as many as 43 per cent of for Gen X respondents and 42 per vent of Gen Y. Even worse, one in five respondents agree that older seniors are a “burden to society.” (Curious how you would measure up? Try the “Are You Age Aware” self-assessment test.)

“This is an emerging global trend that requires addressing with the same vigor that we’ve addressed other significant social issues,” said Dr. Jane Barratt, Secretary General of the IFA. “As a society, there should be no tolerance for ageism, and we must actively work together to end it.”

What can we do to combat these stereotypes?  First, we need to realize that ageism is something all generations need to address.

“As individuals and as a society, we must shine a light on the issue of ageism. We need to recognize, call out and challenge the negative stereotypes and assumptions about aging and older people,” the authors conclude in the report. “Rather than make assumptions about an individual’s abilities or quality of life based on their age, we need to be open-minded, view aging with optimism and reach out to older adults as vibrant, important and valued contributors to society.”

Organizations should also raise awareness about ageism, say Lozon and Dr. Barratt. Likewise, policy makers have a responsibility to create programs to ensure people of all ages can enjoy a high quality of life.

The CNPEA also notes there are steps we can take to combat ageism, including:

– Debunk the myths and misconceptions about aging. (Such as these common myths about aging.)

– See “beyond the label” to see the individual. A person’s age isn’t indicative of their qualities, preferences or state of their health.

– Celebrate people’s contributions to society. Old and frail? Hardly. Experts say we can combat ageism by highlighting role models of all ages.

– Learn more about aging. By learning what to expect as we age, we can combat some of the misinformation out there.

– Learning how to identify ageism and age discrimination. It could be in the language we hear in the media or a new policy that treats people unfairly. We need to recognize it so we can speak out against it.

– Speak out against ageism. What can you do? Contact your politician, for example, or write a letter to a media organization when you encounter ageism.

The bottom line: we shouldn’t sit back and accept it. If we allow the issue to remain hidden, people will continue to think ageism is acceptable, warns the CNPEA.

“Boomers are the next wave of seniors and we know they have different expectations of aging, so let’s start the conversation now,” said Lozon.  “We need to challenge our assumptions about aging because based on their history of demanding social change boomers won’t sit back and accept being treated differently because of their age.”

For more information and inspirational stories, visit Age is More — a special initiative from Revera to combat ageism.

Additional source: CTV News