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Is there ageism in America?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Within the American culture, when one discusses biases, the discussion usually circulates around discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. Rarely does one include the biases against older age. Does it really exist and yet is ignored, thus lending age-bias some credibility? I pose that yes indeed – ageism does exist and is somewhat ignored or accepted in the American culture. In fact, Ted Nelson from California State University states:“Ageism remains one of the most institutionalized forms of prejudice today.”


The occurrences of ageism are so frequent and woven into our everyday lives that we often fail to acknowledge them. Here are a few negative biases or reactions to older adults that I recognize in my everyday life:

  • Frustration with the caution that may be exhibited by an older driver
  • Frustration with the older adult at a checkout lane
  • Assumption that an older adult has limited technical skills
  • Biases against older adults in the workforce
  • Funny anecdotes about aging – “over the hill”
  • Derogatory expressions like “blue hairs”
  • The assumption that you can’t change older adults or that they cannot readily learn new things
  • Older adults are asexual.


Whether you are personally exhibiting ageism or not, America is an ageist society with an emphasis on youth and vitality.In most forms of media, youth and vitality are idolized. Conversely, advanced years are typically associated with declining health and a reduction in energy and overall engagement.

With the increasing number of people 65+ in today’s America, we find that today’s older adults are a significantly diverse group of individuals. People are living longer in America so the older adult population can range in age from 65 to over 100. Within this group, individuals differ in their abilities and health, both cognitively and physically, regardless of age. Some individuals work well into their 80’s or even into their 90’s while others retire from work and overall engagement at 65. We have observed octogenarians completing marathons or other physically challenging sports. In fact, in my mid-thirties, I was wiped off the tennis court by an 85 year old. To group these people into an overall bias is a great disservice to the individual over 65.


So what is the response for those of us who strive as part of our mission to enrich the lives of older adults? In the national forefront, we see opponents and protests against the biases of race, ethnicity, and gender or orientation; however, it appears we do not feel as compelled to advocate on behalf of the older adult. I realize this recommendation may be interpreted as just another area for political correctness, but I suggest it is an area for human correctness. As advocates for seniors, we need to voice our displeasure when someone makes a derogatory joke related to age. We should overtly model patience in checkout lines and stop making ageist jokes and using ageist expressions. Perhaps we can model a new movement of advocacy for older adults.

Next week, we will explore how ageism may exist within our communities.

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