Let’s Talk About Ageism

illustration by KH

by Cora Hermary

It is an often stated but still little-known fact that while we openly acknowledge many forms of prejudice, ageism remains overlooked.  What makes it so difficult to discuss this form of prejudice that all of us might experience at some point in our lives?  Perhaps the word “ageism”, as another “-ism” alongside those in social justice discourse–most notably racism and sexism–invites undermining comparisons between these other forms of discrimination that we now take for granted.  Ageism may seem undeserving of a voice in light of other kinds of oppression.  But it may be instead that the voice of ageism is so quiet only because we have not yet attuned ourselves to it.

Ageism blends so well into the background of the modern status quo that even our everyday champions against it may not perceive it.  When I spoke with Barb Mikulec, a Vancouver seniors’ advocate and vice-president of the Council of Senior Citizens Organizations of BC (COSCO), I was surprised to hear from her that she had never noticed age discrimination.  Yet perhaps her view isn’t so surprising, given how little we talk about ageism.

What is normalized is often unnoticed, and even unnoticeable until we learn to see it.  Ageism is not a historical anomaly in this respect; this seems to be a matter of course with many forms of social oppression.  Unacknowledged oppression is often internalized by its subjects, who in turn enforce and reinforce the cycle for others while incorporating it into their self-image–a phenomenon whose ageist equivalent gerontologist Becca Levy calls “stereotype embodiment”.  In this way, stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies, which only fortifies these preconceptions and renders them harder to shed.  Levy was recently enlisted by the WHO in its Global Campaign to Combat Ageism, whose Global Report on Ageism released this year comprehensively reviews 422 worldwide studies of ageism, recording its manifestations both institutional and internalized.  According to her theory, stereotype embodiment involves not only psychological and behavioural consequences but physical ones as well.  Ageist stereotypes are embodied through internalized ageism, with consequences ranging from the disadvantageous, such as early retirement and workplace limitations, to the detrimental, such as reduced life expectancy and quality of life.  These adverse consequences of stereotype embodiment aren’t just linked to negative self-perceptions of aging, but also to negative perceptions of aging in general, as well as to explicit age discrimination.  Structural ageism perpetuated by our systems leads to worse health outcomes as well, manifesting in denial of healthcare, omission from clinical research, restriction of social resources, and limited employment opportunities.  The end of these oppressive cycles, both internal and external, begins with cultivating awareness in those who are affected by them, and building the solidarity and pride necessary for social action and systemic change.

However, it can be difficult to build a sense of solidarity and pride around age when our culture often presents it as an embarrassment.  On the subject of unflattering ageist stereotypes of senility, infirmity, and frailty–which can be found in a simple thesaurus lookup on “old age”–Barb ventured that “people look at the exterior and might think that [someone] is getting frail, but it depends on your own mindset and how you approach it”.  Indeed, the external appearance of age is a significant factor in ageism, as seniors are often judged on the basis of how they appear rather than on who they are.  The “lookism” of ageism is especially salient for women, who may find themselves pressured to maintain an appearance of youth by concealing apparent signs of age with makeup, hair dye, botox, and a menagerie of anti-aging treatments.  It seems that this pressure to look young partly exists to offset the judgments that often accompany “looking old”–not just the judgements of others, but our internalized self-judgements too.  Barb’s comment reveals how we preemptively brace ourselves against these judgements by adopting mindsets that attempt to prevent them from occurring in the first place.  Yet this does not entail that those judgements do not exist, only that they are so entrenched that we have internalized our defences against them.

To some extent, we are all complicit in ageism.  Age biases can be implicit just as much as explicit, hostile just as much as benevolent.  If we wish to tackle ageism it is helpful if we can be watchful, not so much to guard against our biases as to regard them, and in that regard compensate for what we cannot control with what we can.  Implicit association tests (IAT) have been used in psychological research since 1998, and while their validity is still disputed, you are encouraged to take Harvard’s Project Implicit IAT on age to get a sketch of your own implicit ageism.

In many ways, the pandemic has brought our implicit ageism into the limelight and given us an opportunity to examine our beliefs.  In addition to the pigeonholing of older adults into a homogenous vulnerable demographic, it seems that we’ve been witnessing ageism at both extremes: hostile ageism with the alarming popularity of the #BoomerRemover tag on Twitter last year, which marked contempt towards protection of older generations and exposed the unsavoury underbelly of intergenerational hostility; and benevolent ageism with widespread paternalistic overprotection of seniors, which, aside from disrespecting their agency, has counterproductively resulted in acute social isolation and attendant negative health outcomes.  The pandemic also brought attention to the ongoing exclusion of older adults from digital life, as those who were not digitally literate found themselves doubly socially isolated due to a lack of access to online forms of social contact.  Singling out its importance, Barb mentioned digital access as the current most actionable need among seniors:

If people have access to the internet […] they can reach their friends and their family that could live much further [away].  I’m thinking more or less the results of the pandemic causing isolation, causing mental distress.

She affirms the importance of developing digital literacy among older adults so that they can acquire the agency to alleviate their isolation and connect more to their loved ones.  Fundamental to this end, she suggests, is “living in a community”, “close to the resources that we need—recreational, intellectual, social, cultural events—things that give us joy”.  When seniors do this and embed themselves in a wider community, they can remain “in touch with others” and ameliorate the effects of pandemic isolation.

However, the pandemic was not the beginning of isolation for seniors.  Prior to the pandemic, many seniors have been in a state of isolation from their loved ones and from Western society at large with normalized age segregation through nursing homes and retirement communities.  But even these forms of segregation are in some sense a privilege in that these spaces exclude the lower classes, such as seniors additionally segregated by poverty, an issue Barb identified as the greatest crisis facing older adults nowadays.  Many older adults are homeless and cannot even begin to dream of retirement.  In the United States, adults over the age of 50 are the fastest-growing demographic among the homeless, comprising approximately half of homeless adults as of 2020, compared to only 11% in the early nineties–a fivefold increase in less than thirty years.  Intersecting aging and homelessness, this alarming trend vaguely recalls antiquated practices of senicide, which entailed abandonment of the old once they had outlived their “usefulness”.

Some contend, controversially, that assisted care facilities, nursing homes and their ilk are merely a structural form of abandonment of the old.  Barb grants that while nursing homes may offer a pleasant residence to some, “many people wish to live at home or age in place”, which allows opportunities for seniors’ lifetime experiences to be continually valuable through being shared with our broader communities: “Sharing of knowledge is key to feeling that you still have some value.”  Her belief that “if the government can support with homecare as needed that we can have a choice” echoes the importance of allowing greater autonomy to seniors as part of the solution to systemic ageism, which often denies necessary healthcare to older adults.

To support aging in place, the Canadian government funds subsidized homecare with an annual national budget of around three billion dollars, with the quality of care differing from province to provinceIn British Columbia, long-term care residences, such as nursing homes and hospices, range from $1,500 to $6,000 per month, while homecare costs range from $15 to $75 per hour–from $10,800 per month on the low end to a startling $54,000 on the high end.  While it is recommended that the average Canadian save approximately one million dollars for retirement, such an exorbitant nest egg will sustain just under eight years of the least expensive homecare, and only one and a half of the most expensive.  An assessment of homecare in Canada from the Canadian Healthcare Association confirms that homecare is not yet provided to as many people who require it, and suggests that we might find a positive role model in the Australian system, whose approach to homecare promotes aging in place, better supports caregivers, and provides homecare by need regardless of ability to pay, thereby offering greater accessibility and affordability.

The choice to retire is often itself a matter of funds, but, says Barb, retirees still need a “purpose for life”; she references her own sense of purpose in the communal connection and teamwork that comes with “volunteering in a community setting”.  When it comes to where retirees choose to live, she prefers intergenerational to segregational: whereas older adults sequestered in retirement communities share mostly with each other, intergenerational options like blended families “where they’re living in an apartment part of a young people’s home, or nearby” continually expose retirees to “younger ideas”, which in turn makes them more capable mentors–including to their grandchildren.  “As long as they have contact, they have a reason for being.”

The Japanese concept of ikigai, referring to a reason for being or sense of purpose in life, well captures this idea.  Throughout our conversation, Barb returned to the theme that having a purpose in life is essential to aging well.  For her, the act of passing things on to the next generation–whether knowledge, experiences, wealth or belongings–proves a decisive factor.  She and her husband fund three annual university scholarships, and describes seeing the transfer of wealth as “something I can pass on, something that I know goes right to someone who needs it”.  Even decluttering affords her with an opportunity to pass something on: she describes clearing her bookshelves by reading books which she gives to a friend of hers every week, which then become incorporated into the library for the school her friend teaches at.  Whatever she passes on, she hopes it will be passed along by the next generation.  “Our grandson is growing and growing.  I just hope that he has good memories and that he passes them on.”  One imagines that the passing on won’t end with him either, and that it will continue down the generations in perpetuity.

In spite of Barb’s initial testimony, her remarks nevertheless revealed some hidden truths of the age-unfriendliness of our world and offered actionable advice that’s instrumental in combating ageism.  Half of the battle is knowing what seniors need so that we can all fight for a world that better meets their needs together.  It’s thanks to the knowledge and experiences she’s passed on that we can have conversations like these that allow us to discuss ageism while simultaneously appreciating just how under-discussed it still is, and how much headway we have yet to make on the topic.  This conversation represents a microcosm of our discourse (or lack thereof) on ageism; if we probe into it, we may discover why it remains a difficult subject to talk about, and begin opening up the space for more necessary dialogue.  “All social change begins with a conversation”, and little by little, each one makes a difference.

[1]  Barb also mentioned BC211, an organization which allows you to dial 2-1-1 at any time to be referred to local services and programs by request.  BC211 just launched a new program, “Safe Seniors, Strong Communities”, which connects seniors with non-medical volunteer services ranging from getting groceries to friendly visits–feel free to fill out the form to seek help as a senior (65+) or to volunteer to help a senior in your local B.C. community.

[2] Margaret J. Wheatley, organizational innovator.

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