Successful Aging: Finding ways to counter ageism, especially during the pandemic

Dear readers,

Following up on last week’s topic, this column refers to a special report from the Longevity Project, a Zoomcast on Ageism in America with panelists Dr. Louise Aronson, Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics and Paul Irving, Chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. 

The pandemic has raised the profile of older adults, drawing national attention to the subject of ageism, the discrimination against older people because of their age. 

Ageism is worldwide. A study by the World Health Organization of 83,000 people in 57 countries assessed attitudes toward older people. Sixty percent reported older people are not respected. The lowest levels of respect were reported by countries with high incomes. 

Ageism, a public health crisis: In America, ageism is broad and deep. Irving noted that it is a public health crisis “and deserves to be confronted and called out.” It affects the physical and mental health of older people and has significant impact on older adults who have ageist views about themselves. Older persons who absorb negative age stereotypes often believe they are a burden and are undervalued. Such feelings often lead to increased risks for depression and social isolation, placing them at high risk for physical and mental health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death, according to the National Institutes on Aging. So yes, ageism is a public health crisis. 

Ageism and clinical trials: Older adults frequently are underrepresented in studies for diseases that disproportionately affect them such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis. Dr. Aronson said, “This has sadly been the tradition in the United States with the typical trial population consisting of middle-class male medical students.” She adds that only in 2019 did the National Institutes of Health mandate that older adults should be included in medical research. The Institutes reported some encouraging news, a promising clinical trial for an experimental vaccine was expanded to enroll adults older than age 55 years. 

Ageism and advertising: Advertisers are missing the mark. An AARP report indicates older adults have trillions of dollars of spending power, yet this “demographic is shunned and caricatured in marketing images, perpetuating unrealistic stereotypes and contributing to age discrimination,” according to the New York Times. We know that 46 percent of the U.S. adult population is over 50; yet only 15 percent of images containing adults include people in that age segment, the study finds. There’s more; 30 percent of the U.S. labor force is age 50 or older, yet only 13 percent of images of 50-plus adults involve a work setting. Visual representations matter. They affect attitudes, expectation and behaviors of people of all ages.

In a sense, the recent increased attention on aging and the pandemic gives us a glimpse of society’s perspectives on aging and provides an opportunity to challenge the declining narrative. Fortunately, we are seeing positive responses of increased empathy, interest and more engagement in age issues, noted Dr. Aaronson. People are reaching out to one another; they are caring for each other; friends and family are reconnecting and acts of loving-kindness are daily occurrences. 

But that’s not enough. Irving said what is needed to counteract ageism is action, a movement beginning from the bottom up that includes companies rethinking aging and of course, leadership at the top. 

Anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite is catalyzing such a movement called Old School. It is a clearinghouse of vetted resources to educate people about ageism and how to dismantle it, consisting of blogs, books, articles, videos and workshop materials accessible to the general public. Her goal is to create a movement to make ageism as unacceptable as any other prejudice. See oldschool.info

Reframing Aging is another anti-ageism endeavor. It is an initiative designed to improve the public’s understanding of what aging means and the many ways older people contribute to society. It also includes webinars, technical assistance and other educational materials. See www.frameworksinstitute.org/issues/aging/.

And there is one more – Changing the Narrative, CO, a strategic and communications and awareness campaign to increase understanding of ageism and how to shift Coloradans thing about aging. See changingthenarrativeco.org

Yet, what also is needed is our voices. When we hear or see something that depicts aging or older persons inaccurately, we need to step up and bring it to the attention of the speaker, author, journalist, advertiser, policymaker – or a family member, friend or neighbor. Of course, politeness and tact are key. In most cases, people are not aware of their ageist thinking or language. We all have a role to play in the anti-ageism movement, if for no other reason than self-interest. 

Stay safe and well – and give a virtual hug to someone you love. 

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at [email protected]. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity. 

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