Celebrating Older Americans Month by Breaking Down Ageism

May is Older Americans Month, a time to recognize and celebrate the contributions and achievements of older adults, as well as to raise awareness about issues affecting older Americans. The observance was established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy as “Senior Citizens Month,” and was later renamed “Older Americans Month” by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Recently hearing a comment about our current President’s re-election announcement that was centered not around his presidency but his age prompts me to write about a type of discrimination that pervades our society…ageism. Ageism is when people are treated unfairly or judged based only on their age, especially if they are older, rather than their individual abilities, skills, or accomplishments. This type of prejudice impacts not just the person who experiences it but the society as a whole.

Ageism can make older people feel undervalued and excluded, which can cause them to feel less confident about their abilities and themselves. Ageism can also lead to social isolation, where older adults feel left out and disconnected from others. This can negatively affect both their physical and mental health, as having social support is important for overall well-being.

Ageism has broader societal consequences by limiting opportunities for older adults in areas such as employment, housing, and healthcare. Many older adults are passed over for job opportunities, promotions, or training opportunities due to ageist assumptions that they are less skilled or productive than their younger colleagues. Some landlords may discriminate against older adults by assuming that they are less capable or in worse health than younger individuals. Ageism in the healthcare system is particularly concerning, as it can impact the quality of care that older adults receive.  Healthcare providers may be less likely to offer certain medical procedures, treatments, and even preventative care to older adults due to ageist assumptions about their health or life expectancy.

The language we use to refer to people can be the most powerful tool in combatting ageism at the individual and community level, and in society as a whole. Negative stereotypes and derogatory language can reinforce ageist beliefs, while respectful and inclusive language can help promote positive attitudes and reduce prejudice.

One common example of ageist language is the use of terms such as “old fart,” “over the hill,” or “senile,” which can be hurtful and demeaning. Similarly, referring to older adults using infantilizing terms such as “sweetie,” “dear,” or “granny” can be condescending and disrespectful. It is important to recognize that using these types of terms can contribute to ageist biases and reinforce negative stereotypes about aging.

Using respectful and inclusive language that helps promote positive attitudes about aging involves using neutral language when referring to age, such as “older adults” or “people in their later years,” rather than using terms that suggest decline or diminishment. It can also involve acknowledging and valuing the experiences and contributions of older adults, rather than treating them as irrelevant or unimportant.

Change in the community and society overall begins with education and advocacy.  By educating people about the negative impact of ageism and promoting positive images of aging, we can help to break down negative stereotypes.  Advocacy can help to raise awareness about ageism and promote policies and programs that support older adults. This can include advocating for age-friendly communities, policies that support older workers, and programs that provide access to healthcare, housing, and other resources.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug in for intergenerational connections.   Building networks between individuals of different ages can help to break down barriers and promote understanding. Intergenerational programs that bring older and younger adults together for social, educational, or community-building activities can be especially effective in changing ageist viewpoints.

It is vitally important to promote positive attitudes about aging and older adults, challenging ageist stereotypes and assumptions.  By being mindful of the language and developing avenues for education, advocacy and intergenerational opportunities, we avoid ageist behavior, reducing the social isolation that older adults may experience, and promoting a more positive and respectful view of aging.  This ultimately builds a more equitable and inclusive society for people of all ages.