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Be Aware of Ageism

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Ageism or age discrimination is when someone is treated unfairly because of their age.

In my previous blog “Is Old Age an Illness?” I wrote about how blaming a health condition on age can cause us to overlook and ignore the real reason causing the condition.

In this blog I would like to address how most of us do not realize that we are acting in ways that are ageist and that we have turned a blind eye to this type of discrimination.

How to Recognize Ageism Recognizing ageism is similar to recognizing other types of discrimination:

If there was an activity on a cruise ship, but the staff would not allow you and your friend to participate because you were both black, would this be racist? You are a runner and go to the doctor with an ankle sprain. You ask for tests to make sure you can heal properly to run, but the doctor tells you that there is no need because you are a woman and it’s enough to just get you back walking again. Would this be sexism? If you went to sports store and the salespeople went to serve everyone who came into the store except for you because you were gay, would you consider this homophobic?

Sadly, all the above examples were not racist, sexist or homophobic, but were actual situations that happened to people who were age 60 or older. In all these situations the people involved felt it was perfectly normal to discriminate against someone because of their age. The best way to recognize ageism is to substitute a race or sex instead of age and see if it seems acceptable.

Are Most of Us Ageists?

Yes, most of us are ageists, but we don’t realize it. We often think we are paying a compliment.

You meet someone for the first time, and they say to you, “Wow you look really good for your age!” That may seem like a compliment, but is it? Let’s replace the words with “Wow, you look really good for a Hispanic!” Ouch – that doesn’t sound quite so nice, does it?

You walk into a doctor’s office, and she says, “Oh – I was expecting a little old lady” because she had only looked at your age on the chart. Another compliment? What if the doctor said, “Oh – I was expecting you to be covered in a black burka” because she looked at your Arabic name on the chart.

Most of us have no idea we are saying or behaving in a way that is ageist. For my husband’s 60th birthday we planned a surprise party, and I asked his students to each write a birthday greeting for him that we put into a book format. Card after card had the same messages:

May you have many more years of good health May you be able to work for many more years

Do you think these students would write the same message to someone who was in there 20’s or 30’s? Of course not.

Do you act or say things differently to people who are older? We all need to check ourselves because chances are that we do.

Don’t Assume Everyone Ages the Same Way

Most of us make assumptions that everyone over a certain age behaves the same way.

I am totally guilty of being an ageist. When I opened a movement class for older people 25 years ago, I asked all the participants to bring a permission slip from their doctor before beginning the class. The participants got angry and asked me why? They questioned if I asked the same of younger participants? At the time it seemed so obvious to me that if you are old, then taking this class could be dangerous. Now that I am their age, I understand exactly what they were protesting. They were saying don’t treat us differently because of our age. We are responsible for ourselves just like everyone else. Yesterday I and two other friends who are 60+ participated in a challenging half marathon trail mountain run in the desert. When we went to pick up our race package with our bib number, the guy there looked at me and looked at my packet and thought there must be a mistake. He said you can’t be running the half marathon. A young woman told my friend something similar. Normally at races there is great support from other racers when they see older people running with them, so this was surprising. The people assumed that if we look old, we must be too weak and frail to run.

Yes, we were proud to tell them that we were running the half marathon, but this was a moment of ageism. What we really needed to do was call them on it – and ask why they are assuming that because we are older, we can’t run, We need to bring to people’s attention that they are being ageist.

Assuming Can Be Hurtful Many people have learned the hard way that assuming can be hurtful. One example is asking a woman when she is due, when it turns out she is not pregnant.

Several years ago I ran my first trail race. It was a 33 km race and was the longest I had ever run and it was also a race with the highest elevation change to climb. I had just turned 60 and I was in the best shape I had ever been, both in strength and in flexibility from doing yoga. I was on a crowded train, and I was sitting on the stairs by the door. I was comfortable, but a woman at the other side of the train yelled across to me that I must come and take her seat. I had no idea why she was asking me to take her seat. It really took me awhile to understand what was going on. Yes, this woman was very kind to give up her sit to an “old lady”, but she could have asked me if I wanted the seat, not tell me in front of the whole train that i must come and sit down. I did not get up to take the seat, but the incident really upset me. I am sure I am in much better shape than this woman, yet she assumed because of my age that I must be feeble. A month ago a friend told me how she had offered a ride to an older couple into town, thinking it may be difficult for them to navigate there on their own. She was met with anger. “Why do you assume that we can’t drive?” My friend was hurt because she just wanted to help, but she did not base her assumptions on her neighbors’ ability to drive, but rather on her own belief that anyone over a certain age must have difficulty driving. Her neighbors’ angry response was a reaction to someone wanting to take their independence away from them

By understanding that everyone wants to retain their independence, at every age, we can learn to understand the behavior of an older person with dementia.

If a person with dementia feels that family members and/or their caregivers are doing everything for them and not allowing them any independence, they may also react with anger. Sadly many blame the condition causing the dementia for the anger, and often turn to meds. By understanding that an angry reaction is totally normal and that is how all of us would react if our independence was taken away from us, we could find ways to give the person a sense of independence and in this way lessen the angry behavior without medication.

Ageism and Our Parents Even in our 60’s and 70’s we might make assumptions about our parents that are ageist. As our parents age many of us want to help by taking over their responsibilities, but we must make sure to allow our parents to still have control of the decisions that affect them. Recently a client told me about difficulties she was having with her 90-year-old mother who lived in an independent living facility. The family needed to hire a new live-in caregiver for their mother. Each time the daughter, the mother and the social worker met with a potential caregiver, her mother would take over the conversation and not allow them to interview the caregiver properly. My client was at her wit's end:

“I explain to my mother that she needs to be quiet so we can interview the caregiver, but she keeps talking on and on, telling the caregiver all kinds of personal things she wants the caregiver to do which should not be part of the first interview.”

My client says she keeps explaining to her mother to let them talk, but her mother keeps taking over the conversation. I asked my client this question:

If you needed to hire a housekeeper, to clean your own house, how would you feel if your kids did the hiring for you?

My client of course answered that she would be very upset, because only she would know what kind of housekeeper she needs. I asked her how her mother must feel about not being in charge of choosing her live-in caregiver.

I explained that her mother, now 90 and living in a senior facility, had very few things that she could feel in control of. Almost all the decisions were being made for her. Choosing a caregiver was very important and she needed to feel she was in control of the decision. This was why her mother kept taking over the conversation.

I recommended that instead of just telling her mother that they were going to meet with a potential caregiver, my client could first sit down with her mother and make the plan together. She could discuss with her mother how they should set up the meeting and what they need to ask and say during the interview. I suggested that my client could tell her mother the social worker s suggestions of questions to ask and if her mother agreed or wanted to ask something else. She could set up the order of the meeting with her mother, deciding who will talk first and give her mother a copy of the plan. In this way her mother will feel in control and won’t need to take over during the meeting by talking all the time.

It's wonderful to help someone as they get older, but it is so important to

allow a person to remain independent and be part of all decisions that are made. At every age no one wants someone else to make all the decisions for them. People have lost their jobs due to ageism; others aren’t hired due to ageism and many feel uncomfortable in their workplace due to ageism. The 58.5-billion-dollar world anti-aging industry promotes ageism. We can start by recognizing ageism in the way we speak and act.

Most people, including myself, just ignore an ageist remark, but maybe it’s time for us to point out that the remark was ageist so we can begin to educate others that ageism, like racism and sexism is an assumption made about people that is usually false and propagated by society.

Special thanks to the Runners 60+ group who shared some of their personal stories about ageism for this blog.


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Our next free webinar is on March 23rd

When Memory Loss Leads to Aggressive Behavior

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