We see the image of a stooped-over old man, selfish, confused, disdainful about the world and snapping at everyone around him. Or the 50-something employee, technologically inept, struggling to adapt and fit in with her younger co-workers. Or a sweet little old lady, shuffling down the street, blissfully unaware of dangers around her. We see these images and we laugh as intended. But they are no joke.
They are a few of the negative stereotypes that reinforce low expectations and opinions of people of a certain age and can bring on the social disease that is ageism, the discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of age. Ageism is not unlike other “isms” of the day, such as racism and sexism, and it can have similarly negative impacts on society. When internalized by older adults themselves, ageist views can lead to poorer mental and physical health.
Studies by Yale University have shown that exposure to such images can cause seniors to walk more slowly, hear and remember less well, experience increased stress levels and damaged heart health. Other studies have found that children today as young as 3 or 4 already hold ageist ideas.
“It’s a prevalent and insidious problem,” Alana Officer, head of the World Health Organization’s global campaign against ageism, recently told the New York Times. Since 2016, the World Health Organization has invested more than half a million dollars in researching the topic of ageism.
The view of old age as the crown of life, our play’s last act, as once proclaimed by the Roman orator Cicero, is seen as something much less grand by today’s standards.
Age discrimination is a serious issue in this country, and to counter it, the myths associated with age need to be vigorously addressed. As pointed out by Aging Watch, stereotypes matter. We all have a responsibility to challenge them when and where they do occur. Stereotypes can have direct impact on older people’s health, function and livelihood. For ageism to be accepted as a real problem, we need to talk about it as much as we talk about other forms of discrimination. We need to start to move the attitudinal needle in a positive direction.
According to Becca Levy, a social psychologist at the Yale School of Public Health who has been working on the problem of ageism for more than 20 years, older people who see aging in positive terms are much more likely to recover from disability than those who believe negative age stereotypes. They are also more likely to practice preventive health measures such as eating well and exercising. They experience less depression and anxiety. They also live longer, she tells the New York Times.
In today’s world, the vast majority of Americans work into their 50s, 60s and beyond. In an ideal world, age wouldn’t play a role in determining how employees are treated at work. In reality, it often does.
A recent AARP survey revealed that more than 9 in 10 older workers believe age discrimination to be common in the workplace, with 61 percent saying they have personally seen or experienced it. According to the survey, women were more likely than men to have seen or experienced age discrimination.
While we could all agree that employees should have the opportunity to be judged on their merits rather than their age, the survey results strongly suggest that older job applicants are routinely denied that opportunity.
Among survey respondents who had applied for a new position in the past two years, 44 percent said they were asked for age-related information such as birth dates and graduation years. Nearly 20 percent of the older workers AARP surveyed feared they would lose their job in the next year. Approximately a third of them cited age discrimination as a reason.
In a world that places such a high premium on youth, it has become common to see older employees subtly ill-treated and assigned work well below their positions to push them out of the organization. Even if they are not necessarily less healthy or productive than their younger counterparts, it is easy to believe how they could be seen that way. While age bias is prohibited under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, such charges are not always easy to prove.
If we are to create equitable workplaces where all workers – irrespective of age, gender or any other difference – are to feel valued and respected, publically underscoring the facts and challenging stereotypes must play a prominent role.
We must also confront the isolating effect that such discrimination can produce.
Loneliness and social isolation are growing public health concerns for people of all ages in the United States. A current National Poll on Healthy Aging finds that approximately 1 out of every 3 seniors are lonely. (Loneliness is defined as the discrepancy between actual and desired relationships.)
Studies have long connected loneliness to a range of health issues that could threaten longevity and well-being, including higher risks of heart attacks, strokes, depression and anxiety.
In the study sponsored by the AARP, researchers from the University of Michigan surveyed a group of about 2,000 Americans ages 50 to 80. More than a third of seniors in the poll said they felt a lack of companionship at least some of the time, and 27 percent said they sometimes or often felt isolated.
The study also shows that the effects of loneliness – as with the effects of ageism – can be reversed. Research suggests the best interventions are those that involve meaningful social contact, something I think we all could benefit for having more of.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.