By Susan Pratten
Ageism can be a cause for both individual acts of age discrimination and for discrimination that is more systemic in nature, such as in the provision of services and programs and in the development of structures such as housing and health care facilities, including hospitals and clinics.
It has been 50 years since Dr. Robert Butler coined the term ‘ageism’, a way of thinking about older persons based on primarily negative attitudes and stereotypes about their perceived age with associated beliefs about their competencies and abilities. Ageist views equate aging with decline and a diminished human value, which condones inferior conditions (e.g. segregated housing, poverty), unequal treatment (e.g. transportation, employment, health care), abuse and neglect.
According to the Revera Report on Ageism, published by Revera, a seniors’ care provider, and the International Federation on Ageing (IFA), more than one-third of Canadians admit to ageist behaviour; and 71 per cent agree older people are less valued than younger generations. Regarding discrimination encountered from the health care system, 78% of older persons reported their health concerns were dismissed as being an inevitable part of aging. The report concluded that ageism is the most tolerated form of social discrimination in Canada when compared to gender or race-based discrimination. There is growing evidence that ageism is institutionalized in health care which puts the health and quality of life of older adults at risk.
Nobody is Born Ageist
Attitudes and stereotypes about age begin to form in early childhood and are internalized throughout adulthood. The understanding and challenging of age related prejudice is complex given we are all aging. The study of aging and work with older adults is intertwined with our fears about the aging process and fears associated with illness, death and decline.
A key part of ageism is reluctance to admit personal aging. How many have heard a person over 70 say they will not go to a retirement home because too many old people live there? Stereotyping, the assumption that all members of a group are the same underlies ageism and yet as people age the more heterogeneous the population becomes.
Age and Intersectionality
The Ontario Human Rights Commission acknowledges that people may experience disadvantage in unique ways based on the intersection of age with other aspects of their identity. Consider how ageism is compounded with a resulting increase in social and health barriers when older persons are older women, persons with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered persons, or persons from diverse linguistic, religious, ethnic or racial backgrounds. As an example, aging has a disproportionate effect on women with disabilities who are especially vulnerable to discrimination, economic disadvantage and barriers to adequate health care.
Ageism within Health Care
Ageism within health care can take several forms, including health professionals having negative attitudes towards older people, engaging in patronizing behaviour, denying or limiting services, and by not including aging issues in training material or educational offerings even though it is clear that the growing proportion of consumers, clients and patients will be older adults.
Ageism fosters pity instead of empathy, promotes rescue instead of empowerment, and can lead to frustration and anger at the older person. It extends to the devaluing of careers in aging, which has resulted in a severe shortage of geriatricians and other social and health professionals to care for the needs of the aging population. No Ontario medical school, for example, currently offers core training in geriatrics. Sheridan College in Ontario is one of the few Colleges in Canada with a social service specialization in gerontology. It is essential that all programs that educate professionals who work with older persons include knowledge about aging and age discrimination within their curricula.
Look for part two on January 20, 2016.
Susan Pratten M.S.W., RSW is a professor in the Social Service Worker-Gerontology program in the Faculty of Applied Health and Community Studies at Sheridan College.
The Aging Matters blog is changing in 2016
The Sheridan Centre for Elder Research will continue to write about current
and relevant issues related to aging the first Wednesday of every month.
Our guest bloggers will be contributing the third Wednesday of each month.