Age discrimination affects our country’s business, economy, values, and human dignity. It’s a disgrace how we treat our elders. It’s time we transform our perceptions of aging, from dependency and weakness to one of proficiency and resourcefulness.
Four major categories that identify subgroups in our society are race, gender, sexual orientation and age. And the latter is the only social group that everyone may join if they’re lucky. Despite this, age-based bias remains under-studied. This article addresses ageism, highlighting existing professionals’ perspectives on its consequences, and how we as a society can fix the prejudice of aging.
As a whole, each one of us marks the passage of age on our birthdays but other than that, aging is rarely discussed. The only time we openly talk about it is when we consider anti-aging cosmetics and treatments. Other than that, it’s considered distasteful. We’re afraid to ask another person’s age or the date of a college graduation. If asked, we either tell a lie or get defensive about the question. It’s not approached with appreciation. As editor of SeniorCare.com, I recently interviewed industry experts for solutions to help alter our culture’s narrow perspectives on aging as found in the recent FrameWorks Institute report Gauging Aging.
Same page thinking
The general public draws on a variety of models or perspectives when thinking about growing older. Some see it as becoming frail, dependent, reduced potential and isolated whereas others see aging as the opposite; giving back to society, forming close relationships, staying active and learning new skills. Both sharply contradict the other posture. But if we are to change the role that older Americans play in our society, aging advocates and professionals believe:
“Before we can leverage the resource model, we first have to view (older adults) as one. Our glorification of the young and able-bodied makes this difficult.” Christina Selder, Consumer Advocates for RCFE Reform.
“First we need to deal with ageism. Once everyone accepts that the more aged people are real humans and not just either taking cruises or in a nursing home, we can find ways to tap their talents and energy.” Donna Schempp, Caregiver.org.
“Older adults are often cast aside and deemed non-productive members of society. We’ve read inspiring stories of more abled adults helping their peers who are less mobile by providing transportation or help at home.” Seth Sternberg, JoinHonor.com.
Seeing older people as the “other” contributes to a win/lose perspective that facilitate an “Us vs. Them” thinking pattern. It’s rampant in our society—I win, you lose. It seems someone must always lose if there is a winner. The “Us vs. Them” rings true in government support: a program for the aged will take away from a program for children. The thinking pattern propagates ageism. Thought leaders believe:
“We need to foster more intergenerational programs, and we need to document the life stories of our elders. That will help assure that valuable lessons are passed on and that generations learn from each other.” Anthony Cirillo, The Aging Experience.
“It’s not just about care but connection and contribution that allow seniors to thrive. There are several initiatives that I love – the village movement; cross-generational co-housing development; Seniors-Youth attention and tutoring opportunities. These efforts empower older adults to give back.” Michelle Jeong, Reminder Rosie.
“Older adults take care of grandchildren, share wisdom with their kids and younger business associates and assist in the care of their generation. We should 1. Tap into those with specialized knowledge via a program like Japan’s national living treasure grants and 2. Support them in caregiving/extended family assistance.” Shannon Martin, Aging Wisely.
Our society thrives on uniqueness, individuality, and independence. It’s our country’s values. But regarding caring for people as a whole, the principles diminish shared responsibility. We put the blame on individuals for not saving enough for long-term care and not taking care of one’s health. That type of thinking can fault others and leave them out to dry. Professionals claim these steps to foster unity:
“Older adults are an untapped wealth of life experience and skills. We should capitalize on their knowledge and find ways to utilize their skills—mentoring kids, helping small businesses, teaching others, etc. We should not assume aging means lack of ability. Older adults could be caregivers to their peers when they need help! Seniors have so much to give us all if we engage them!” Kathy Birkett, Senior Care Corner.
“The senior and retired person’s time is the number one most valuable and significant asset they have. While retiring traditionally means relaxing most have opted to make an impact in this new life either through volunteering, mentoring or contributing to their community. It means an upcoming boon in volunteerism that will be great for gaps in areas like elderly transportation and public service.” Harsh Wanigaratne, Spedsta.com.
“By the 22nd century, half the world’s 7,000 languages may go extinct (one disappears every 14 days). Not only do languages catalog aspects of our culture and cognition, but they may even contain irreplaceable knowledge. Often, our elders are caretakers of language, the sole repositories of an oral tradition that could be forgotten. We cannot value, protect or restore one without the other.” Stephen Forman, Long Term Care Associates, Inc.
“Mentors, tutors, guides: so many businesses and individuals today are risky for the wise advice of a life coach or the guiding expertise of a consultant, and will pay a high price for either. Why not engage the millions of older adults who have a lifetime of experience behind them?” Michelle Seitzer, MichelleSeitzer.com.
“Many of us are not close to our family members for one reason or another, so seniors can become surrogate grandparents, aunts, uncles, mothers or fathers to people who are younger. Seniors often have time, love, and wisdom to share. They may appreciate the companionship, energy, and access to technology that younger people can provide.” Margo Rose, Body Aware Grieving.
“The one resource that all older people have and all younger people lack is a life experience. I believe we should strive to find a way to bridge the gap between these generations and tap into that precious resource through mentorship, intergenerational learning, and collective problem solving. There’s a great example of a preschool located in a Seattle senior care center.” Stuart Karten, Karten Design.
The public blinds itself to the fact that people are living longer, and the population is growing older. We’re so focused on ourselves as individuals that we lose sight of the whole society. That limits our perspective. We don’t “get” the needs of others and how to support our older segment. We’re a segregated group of individuals. If we don’t see the problem, how can we create solutions? Here’s what aging thought leaders say we must do to remedy the limited vision:
“Older adults are a natural resource in their willingness to serve the community as volunteers. A survey by the federal Administration on Aging states that 15 million seniors currently volunteer. They prefer to do more of it because it benefits them. The act of giving back builds strong social ties in the community and prolongs physical and mental health in old age.” Evan Farr, Farr Law Firm.
“All generations can benefit from the more elderly population’s ‘pearls of wisdom’ from both their personal life experiences and their business acumen. The recent movie “The Intern” with Robert De Niro highlighted the importance of traditional business techniques and relationship building in the age of social media and technology. Marla Levie, Focus on Aging.
“Caring for our aging population is already an enormous part of our economy. However, the current model is to build care homes to house the elderly and those with memory problems. It would be better to integrate the communities, rather than isolate them. I like the model of a joint-care home for older adults and daycare for young children. Nancy Wurtzel, Dating Dementia.
“With elders being this nation’s greatest natural resource we are fortunate to have a generation of Americans eager and willing to impart invaluable knowledge gained from their life experiences. We can look to elders for guidance with relationships, family, learning patience, compassion and how to move forward in the face of adversity. All one needs to do is listen, ask questions and learn.” David Mordehi, Advise and Protect.
“We could allow older adults to continue contributing in their fields of expertise in ways that suit their lifestyle needs. They have decades of experience that offers wisdom and perspective. We could set up corporate programs where seniors act as consultants on projects or formally mentor younger employees.” Connie Chow, Daily Caring.
As experts in the aging services industry we have first-hand experience of the discrimination older Americans live with every day. If we can help the public understand that they too will grow old and face the same judgment, maybe then our society could transform aging.