By Susan Pratten
Ageist beliefs that older adults are weak and frail do not reflect the fact that the majority of persons over 65 consider themselves in good health. Recent research by psychologist and assistant professor, Yale School of Public Health, Becca Levy PhD, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, describes how attitudes towards aging have a measurable effect on how people age. Positive attitudes of aging improve mental and physical function while negative ones can harm physical and cognitive health. This is not a simple causal relationship but people with negative self-perceptions around aging are less likely to engage in healthy practices like having regular checkups, controlling weight and diet, and exercising, and vice versa.
Will Ageism be eradicated in Your Lifespan?
Popular efforts to challenge ageism have consisted of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to portray older persons who have aged outside of the typical ageist profile, often highlighting what society views as youthful appearance, or extraordinary achievement. Preoccupation with such exceptions is itself ageist.
Over the last fifteen years in Ontario there have been a number of educational ageism awareness initiatives (e.g. Best Before sticker) but there is little, if any, evidence that they have had an impact on reducing ageism. Intergenerational interventions have documented a number of benefits to participants, but the effect on ageism is mixed. Further research is warranted.
There have also been a growing number of calls to action (e.g. Time For Action: Advancing the Rights of Older Persons in Ontario and OCSCO Positive Active Aging Forum) for community and government partners to ensure that their policies and programs will not result in marginalization, disadvantage and discrimination for older persons. Late in 2015, the World Health Organization launched their call for action for an age-friendly world, which, among other actions, advocates for ones that “combat ageism, enable autonomy and support Healthy Ageing in all policies and at all levels of government”.
Theatre Production to Combat Ageism
Impatient with how entrenched ageism is in spite of efforts to reduce it, Dr. Bill Thomas, founder of The Eden Alternative and Green House Project, initiated his Age of Disruption Tour, a theatrical and musical performance designed to challenge ageist stereotypes, and promote the concept of change at both the community and personal levels. The Tour brought 101 live events to 30 cities in 20 states. Dates and locations are being scheduled for 2016.
Top Three Recommendations
- Engage in consciousness raising by acknowledging personal views about age and aging, including fears about loss and death.
- Ensure an intersectionality approach to understanding health disparities and exploring solutions by including older persons representing gender, disability, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, culture and language.
- Build evaluative frameworks into all programs and initiatives to determine their effectiveness in altering views about aging and in changing the way older people are treated in regard to their competence and value in society.
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.