Combating Ageism: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Age Stereotypes
By Emily Falk | 08/15/2023
What is Ageism?
Ageism is discrimination against individuals or groups because of their age. It can be easy to make judgements based on someone’s perceived age but, like other forms of discrimination, negative stereotypes resulting from age prejudice can have very real consequences. While ageism can apply to individuals of any age, it is often directed towards older adults. It is important to note that even if one does not currently experience ageism, we are all inevitably aging. Therefore, if we don’t work to combat ageism now, all generations will experience ageism in the future.
Use Age-Inclusive Language
Ageism has become so socially acceptable that most people don’t even realize when they are saying something ageist. Often, people unconsciously use words and phrases that set older adults apart. This “othering” can enforce stereotypes that impact policy, group attitudes, and health of older adults. One common example of ageism is referring to an incident of minor forgetfulness as a “senior moment”. While seemingly harmless, this type of language reinforces the negative stereotype that all older adults are forgetful and may be hurtful for the older adults in our life. Being more conscious about how we refer to older individuals will impact how we think about aging and consequently how we treat adults 65 and older.
Some examples of language to be avoided include “elder” “elderly” “senior” or “the aged.” A study of the public perception of aging terminology showed that these words can actually perpetuate negative stereotypes by creating divisions between people over 65 and people under 65. They can allow younger people to disassociate from prejudices affecting older adults, and groups older people into a category that can be discriminated against. More neutral phrases such as “older adult” “older person” “persons over 65” or “older individuals” were shown to be preferable, because they acknowledge the fact that people of all generations are aging, reframing aging as a collective experience. Additionally, it is best to use specific descriptors such as precise age ranges—for example, ‘adults in their 80s’—whenever possible. These options are more inclusive and help to change ideas about aging from something that should be feared to something that is part of the normal human reality.
Oftentimes, even phrases that are meant as compliments can perpetuate ageist prejudice. It is best to avoid sentences that valorize youth. Examples of what to avoid include: “You don’t look 65!” or “She’s young at heart!”. These sentences insinuate that youth is preferable. Instead, try to identify what specific quality you are associating with younger people—like the person’s liveliness, sense of humor or taste in pop culture—and compliment that instead!
Today’s age-norms were not introduced until the 19th century. Before that point, people of all ages were educated in the same classroom, and age-specific institutions such as retirement homes or children’s hospitals did not exist. Now, there are greater divisions between people of different generations. Children are separated by age starting in preschool, and older adults tend to congregate with their peers in senior living communities. In fact, research shows that more than half of the population rarely spends time with others significantly older or younger than themselves, besides family.
These divisions could be contributing to an increase in ageist stereotypes against people of all ages. Perhaps one way to combat ageism is to promote greater interaction between people of different age groups. A 2019 Cornell study shows that Intergenerational programing helps to combat ageist attitudes within all participants. When older and younger people come together for intergenerational programing, they are both working to benefit each other. Therefore, each group feels equally empowered and valued, encouraging them to see themselves and each other in a more positive light. Plus, intergenerational programing helps both older and younger people to understand each other better. This helps to deepen social ties and break down ageist stereotypes. Ageism can affect a person at any stage of their life, so it is important that we all work together to fight this issue.
The rise of social media can help to combat ageism because it can be used to bring awareness to the issue and encourage people to recognize and reject ageist stereotypes. Social media can also be used to engage older adults of diverse backgrounds in conversation about where ageism is prevalent. Social media is “democratizing,” in that it attracts people based on passion, transcending traditional dividing factors such as age. Knowledge, skill, and talent are shared across generational divides. This means that older adults can gain followers and influence on social media platforms, just like younger people.
Older social media influencers such as The Old Gays, Diane Shiffer and Bo Petterson help younger people to understand the reality of aging. They are proof that it is still possible to live an active and fulfilling life. These older influencers often become role models for younger generations, and their content offers reassurance and validation. The presence of older adults on social media platforms means that younger people can bear witness to how the reality of being an older person contrasts negative stereotypes, changing their perception on what it means to grow old, and how they think about older adults.