Ask a Care Manager: Changing the conversation about ageism

Free samples allure us often; it might be down the Costco aisle, a popular television commercial, an ad on social media or at popular events. At a recent fair I attended I received a free sample of “anti-aging” products, along with other older adults, who were hooked by the spiel. Normally I would have declined, but I got caught up in the conversation of “reducing wrinkles” and the challenge to accept and try the product.  I currently write this article with swollen eyes and aversion to not staying committed to the candor of ageism.

According to the Framework Institute, “Ageism is discrimination against older people due to negative and inaccurate stereotypes.”

In 2001 a survey by Duke University’s Erdman Palmore, PhD, it was revealed that the most frequent type of ageism — reported by 58 percent of respondents — was being told a joke that pokes fun at older people. Thirty-one percent reported being ignored or not taken seriously because of their age. The study appeared in The Gerontologist (Vol. 41, No. 5). It is 2017 and the only change has been the increased population of older adults.

As a gerontologist, care manager and educator in the field of aging. I’m constantly aware of the negative messages and images that have been accepted and become a norm in our society. Ageist comments can be subtle or meant as well-intentions such as: addressing an older woman as “young lady” or using terms as “sweetie, honey and hon” to the older population. First, we know we aren’t young and second, unless you know the person personally they are not your hon, sweetie or honey. These are derogatory terms and demeaning to older adults. I recently had this conversation with a medical assistant during a visit with my husband to see his doctor. She greeted him with “Hi hon how are you doing today?” I asked if she greeted all the clients that way and she said the “older men liked it.” I haven’t decided if they are placating or think it makes the older adult feel better because they are older.

Ageism is evident in the barrage of commercials for older adults that need help — “the clapper, clap on/clap off,” the “help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” medical alert, and the more updated “lack of sexual energy” and “Depends” (adult diapers). It is evident in the multi-million-dollar ant-aging products and surgeries industries, which subtly suggest that by buying these expensive products and services we can erase the visible indicators of aging. This phenomenon has morphed into other areas. Older people are treated differently by doctors with the common phrase “you’re aging or it is a part of aging.” Its presence is felt in the workplace with bias towards the older adult’s ability to adapt, learn technology, productivity and retirement policies. Sadly it is seen in younger people who discriminate against their own imminent aging self.

I realized that I had entered this discrimination arena when I went to buy a pair of running shoes. I had previously looked at shoes and couldn’t decide, so when I went back the young sales rep got frustrated at my inability to recall the exact name of the shoe. He asked the manager of the store, who shrugged me off and both non-verbally decided I didn’t know what I was talking about and walked into the back of the storeroom. I had witnessed this when I would take my mother-in-law shopping for specific items like a computer or TV. So I boldly explained that I might not look like your “runner,” but I was running marathons before they were born or in diapers. I also informed them that I had completed 16 marathons and countless 5ks and 10ks and that I would take my money to a quality store that doesn’t practice ageism. As I walked out the door, I knew I hadn’t made a difference and they didn’t care.

There is a “gaining momentum” amongst eight leading aging organizations to reframe public perceptions and reduce the stigma of aging.  These include AARP, American Federation for Aging Research, American Geriatrics Society, Gerontological Society of Aging, Grantmakers in Aging, National Council on Aging and the National Hispanic Council. The FrameWorks Institute, along with these advocates for aging, are “framing strategies to advance aging and address ageism as policy issues.”

We, the older Americans, must rally and change the conversation and communication as they relate not only to our current quality of life but to our future “aging” youth. Unlike the “isms” of color and gender, we can change the “ism” of aging, as it includes everyone. FrameWorks suggests ideas to help change our perceptions. Consider: “as we get older, we gain momentum with the force of built-up experience and wisdom,” “our society is not treating older people as equals, but instead are marginalizing their participation and minimizing their contributions.”  Try the following “change ideas:” talking affirmatively about changing i.e. “as Americans live longer and healthier lives,” “let’s find creative solutions to ensure we can all thrive as we age” and use more neutral and inclusive terms, i.e. “older people/Americans and we and us.”   

We worry about aging, losing independence, loss due to chronic illness/falls, hospitalization, cognitive impairment, loss of family/friends and ultimately our fear of death. However, as a society we can lessen the stereotyping of older people through civic and community lifestyles by supporting greater health and well-being and intergenerational social engagement. We all must confront ageism by accepting our bodies will age and change and validating aging as a meaningful time of life.

Deon Batchelder is a certified care manager and the clinical supervisor for Elder Options Inc. She brings a wealth of knowledge about POLST, Parkinson’s disease, VA benefits and entitlement and waiver programs to the Elder Options team. Deon’s passion for care management grew from a commitment to advocate and support older adults, disabled and vulnerable populations.

Special to Village Life

Discussion | 2 comments

  • BrendanJuly 19, 2017 - 7:06 pm

    Speaking as someone who works on issues of ageism, one of the scary things is that so many people don't know what ageism is. In particular, people my age (recent college grads) often aren't aware of it. And some people may not be aware of it at all until they experience it.

  • RebaAugust 01, 2017 - 8:02 am

    While I understand that ageism is something that may be experienced by most people (i.e. those that get to grow older) and, therefore, has the greater potential to change, I disagree with the "unlike the 'isms' of color and gender" perspective. I think we need to be careful when we address ageism to not assume that all people have the experience of ageism, because the "cumulative disadvantage" that occurs at the intersection of ageism, racism, sexism, etc. has a different effect on some older adults versus others. So yes, we need to address and work on changing ageist systems and ways of thinking, as well as work to address racism and the other forms of oppression that people experience.



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