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5 Examples of Everyday Ageism

Updated February 21, 2020

Leacey Brown

SDSU Extension Gerontology Field Specialist

Robert Butler coined the term ageism in 1969. Much like racism or sexism, ageism refers to stereotypes of and discrimination against people based on a single trait: their older age. Butler indicated ageism is shown at both the individual and institutional level. Ageism includes stereotypes, myths, outright disdain and dislike, avoidance of contact, and discrimination in housing, employment, and services of many kinds. For example, I was recently shopping at a store on a busy Saturday. I was in the self-checkout lane. I heard a person behind me make a remark about the age of the person using the register. While I did not hear exactly what was said, it was evident the slow progress of the line was attributed to the age of the person using the checkout system.

Like other forms of discrimination, ageism negatively impacts individual people. Research suggests people with more negative views on aging experience poorer health. Unlike other forms of discrimination, we subtly accept ageism with little comment or concern. For example, we have all seen the advertisements for anti-aging products. Imagine the uproar that would ensue if companies were marketing anti-feminine or anti-race products. What’s more, ageism is the only form of prejudice we will all experience, if we live long enough.

5 Common Examples

  1. Attributing forgetting to our age.
    To forget is to be human. We don’t think twice about misplacing our keys in our 20s. We might experience frustration, but we would hardly attribute the loss of our keys to a “senior moment”. As we get older, we start attributing memory lapses to our age. Research tells us that perceptions of age-related memory loss are overblown.

  2. Ninety percent of marketing dollars target people younger than 50!
    What’s shocking about this figure is that one-third of Americans are age 50 or older. Even more ironic is that older people have more income at their disposal than younger people and the number of adults 50 and older is projected to increase!

  3. “Old people go there!”
    In my time as a professional, I have heard this statement in various ways and most often from people the venue is designed to serve. Most recently I was told about a 90+ woman who didn’t want to go to a senior center because that’s where old people go. Discerning her exact meaning is difficult, but her statement tells us that being around “old people” is undesirable.

  4. Benevolent ageism refers to assigning protection/benefits to people because older age is assumed to identify need.
    Three out of every five people see older people as lonely. Many believe they have been abandoned by their families. While connection to the family is essential to preventing loneliness in older people, only one out of eight older people reported feeling lonely.

    Disability is also assumed to be common among people age 65 and older. While more common in older people than younger people, it is not as prevalent as one might assume based on aging stereotypes. In 2012, nearly two-thirds of people age 65 and older are reported to have had no disability.

  5. Emphasis on looming healthcare crisis as the boomers age.
    Research shows the divide between expert knowledge and public understanding on aging. Among the general public, loss of control and deterioration are assumed to be natural parts of the aging process. In contrast, experts emphasize that features of our communities and homes are the key to maintaining health and independence as we age. Discussing the healthcare system without including social determinants of health (e.g. food access, walkability, crime, etc.) omits valuable pieces of the puzzle that explain how we experience aging.

Hope for the Future

While ageism is still present, we have made progress. Between the 1950s and 1990s, 80% of TV commercials used negative aging stereotypes. A recent analysis of TV commercials showed the use of negative stereotypes dropped by nearly 50%. What’s more, the emerging research suggests the key to squelching the impact of ageism is rooted in deliberate intergenerational activities.

Taking young people to nursing homes is not the first step. Well-meaning adults may not realize trips to nursing homes risk reinforcing negative stereotypes on aging (frail, feeble, sick, dependent, decline, etc.). What’s more, only 5% of adults age 65 or older reside in nursing homes. This is not to suggest that young people should never go to nursing homes. The key is to diversify their exposure to older people so they have more accurate information on what it means to be older.

SDUS Extension is creating intergenerational opportunities for the people of South Dakota. TeachSD is an intergenerational technology program. Younger people are highly skilled using technology and many adults are eager to learn to use technology. Collaborative efforts between experts in youth and adult development have resulted in a curriculum to teach young people how to teach adults to use technology. Working with partners in the community, SDSU Extension provides opportunities for younger people to interact with older people in positive ways. It is our hope that TeachSD helps squash ageism.


Related Topics

Aging Well