In a society that still accepts ageism, denial takes many forms. It’s time to challenge this damaging bias against older adults and signal ‘the beginning of the end’ for ageist practices.
I recently attended a Marketing and Membership Committee meeting for our senior center in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, that had on the agenda changing the center’s name to something ageless—something without senior in it or any other word that might be viewed negatively by those ages 55 years and better. The premise for changing our name was that people known as Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are simply not identifying with the word senior. We feel a name change is a strategy we could use to attract the younger older adult, starting at age 55, and increase our membership. It’s a strategy many centers across North America have already tackled.
At the meeting, I was somewhat intrigued when a committee member commented that he had never heard the term ageism prior to this discussion. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines ageism as: “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and esp. the elderly.”1 I believe the reason he had never heard of this word is that ageism is one of society’s last accepted “isms,” which is just beginning to be challenged. Unless people have been affected by ageism personally, such as in the job market by being told they are too old for a position, most don’t see it, let alone see the harm in it. That’s because ageism has been entrenched and left unchallenged in our society for so long.
In fact, to challenge ageism can leave one open to comments like, “She’s lost her sense of humor.” This is probably one of the most commonly used defense mechanisms that ageism hides behind: humor. As William Thomas, MD, well-known geriatrician, author and aging advocate, says in his video Elderhood Rising: The Dawn of a New World Age, “If you go around making jokes based on another person’s gender, that’s sexism. If you make jokes about another person’s race, that’s racism. But, if you joke about somebody’s age, that’s called situation comedy.”2
Defense mechanisms are forms of denial used to keep from confronting the truth. There is only one definition of denial—refusal to admit the truth or reality—and many ways that it manifests itself including, but not limited to, humor, global thinking, rationalization, minimizing, comparison, avoidance, distraction, blaming and more. These forms of denial are intended to prevent people from confronting ageism. So, it’s a good idea that as we start to uncover, discover and discard the manifestations of ageism, we understand these defense mechanisms for what they are. Lies.
Forms of denial
Tactics used to deny the existence of ageism can manifest themselves in simple forms or more complex façades. Let’s look at global thinking. That’s the tendency for individuals who are told that what they just did—such as purchasing an “over-the-hill” birthday card—is ageist. They deny it by claiming, “Everyone buys those kinds of cards.” This is a tricky one, because ageist behavior has been accepted for so many years that, in fact, almost everyone does purchase those types of cards, especially for people who reach decade birthdays.
Despite the fact that purchasing these cards is accepted by society, it does not make this behavior less ageist. We all age differently, due in large part to our lifestyles. It is wrong to suggest that because people reach a decade birthday, they’re out of the game. So, remember, if someone tells you “everyone does it,” look a little closer at this global excuse for inappropriate behavior.
Rationalization is trying to justify unacceptable behavior such as ageism. When people rationalize doing or saying something ageist, they may say, “I’m just joking. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings.” Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging® (ICAA), believes “there is nothing funny about ageism. In fact, the impact of negative views of aging is simple, according to a study led by Yale’s Becca Levy,”3 Milner says. “Older people can literally ‘think’ themselves into the grave 7.6 years early by feeling ‘bad’ about getting old.” So, the messages we send have a huge impact, and may do more than just hurt someone’s feelings.
Trying to make behaviors or consequences appear smaller or less important than they are is called minimizing. A person, for example, may say to those who are discussing ageism, “There are more important issues to be dealt with regarding older adults. This is a trivial issue when you compare it to (whatever).”
Minimizing is a close cousin to another defense mechanism called comparison, which shifts the focus to another issue facing older adults—one that is more harmful or poses more imminent danger. More concisely, a person might say, “Ageism isn’t as bad as Alzheimer’s disease, so why all the worry?” The point here is seeing how, through comparison, the topic shifts from ageism to Alzheimer’s disease. This gets us nowhere in addressing ageism. It simply shifts the topic of conversation, resulting in a dead end to a real deliberation on ageism.
Avoidance does something similar. While it doesn’t compare ageism to something more terrible to deflect attention away from the topic, avoidance is used to change the subject, ignore the subject, or manipulate the conversation to avoid talking about the subject. In Minnesota, our favorite expression to deflect attention focuses on the state baseball team—“How about those Twins?”
Distraction takes a little more stage presence than avoidance. This defense mechanism can be demonstrated by acting like a clown to get everyone laughing, having angry outbursts meant to frighten or intimidate others, threatening, posturing, and behaving in other shocking ways. Distraction works. It shuts down conversation on ageism by upstaging everything going on around the behavior.
Finally, blaming shifts responsibility for the ageist behavior to other people—often older adults themselves. For example, a disgruntled employee may say, “If you waited on them every day, you’d understand why I call them cranky old geezers!” This statement implies that older adults deserve to be called ageist terms and bring these responses upon themselves.
These are just some of the forms of denial I’ve run into when trying to have healthy deliberations on ageism. This brings me to another question: Why are people, especially the professionals who advocate for older adults, in such denial of ageism? I can invision armies of people marching in protest if individuals from one of society’s protected groups were talked about in such a manner or marketed to with such ridiculous paraphernalia. Seldom is there outrage when it comes to older adults.
Time for a change
Strangely enough, there still remains controversy over the very fact that ageism exists. Aging and wellness expert Kay Van Norman, owner of the consulting firm Brilliant Aging, recalls a conversation she had about ageism with a lawyer who appeared to be in his 30s. He claimed that derogatory jokes about aging were not discriminatory because everyone ages, so no one is singled out. “Ageist jokes are discriminatory,” Van Norman argues, “because they ‘accuse’ individuals of belonging to a specific group of people—frail, older adults with physical or cognitive challenges.” She continues, “Our culture does not condone derogatory statements and stereotypes about young people with those same challenges—why does it condone and even celebrate those attitudes towards older adults?”
Let’s take a brief look at the world of people with disabilities. They have gone through a myriad of changes in the last century. Words such as sanitarium, asylum, imbecile, retarded and even handicapped—which were accepted in the 1930s and ’40s—have been replaced with terms such as home-based community services, supervised living services, people with disabilities, and consumers.
All the while too many in the aging world have clung to outdated terms and practices, such as senior, elderly, senior citizen, senior center (first opened in the 1940s by the New York City Department of Welfare4), and senior discounts. And they have continued the traditions of “black birthdays,” with all their insulting gifts. Are these terms and practices relevant to society and people ages 55 and better in 2011?
We need to retire much of our terminology and practices because of the stigma and negative stereotypes they perpetuate. According to mature market strategist and consultant Richard Ambrosius, “One of the most insidious elements of ageism is acceptance by many older adults … it is just the way things are. Others will say, being a ‘senior’ beats the alternative. Sadly,” Ambrosius adds, “acceptance of aging stereotypes as reality can result in self-fulfilling prophecies of aging and the body succumbs to what the mind has accepted as normal. The result, of course, can be premature memory loss, frailty and decline.”
A starting point
At Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, psychology professor Linda M. Woolf, PhD, has studied ageism, and states her theoretical basis for this phenomenon. In her study, Woolf also discusses social breakdown syndrome, one potential outcome of internalized ageist attitudes in older adults. This is similar to the self-fulfilling prophecy Ambrosius speaks of above regarding the acceptance of negative attitudes about age and aging.
Woolf claims the societal influences that form her theoretical basis of ageism must be addressed for ageism to be obliterated in the United States. These are:5
• fear of death in Western society (death is synonymous with old age)
• emphasis on youth culture in American society (marketing)
• emphasis in American culture on productivity (retirement being seen as unproductive)
• the manner in which aging was originally researched (in long-term care and nursing facilities, where individuals are often in ill health and stages of decline)
In announcing ICAA’s Changing the Way We Age® Campaign earlier this year, CEO Colin Milner accurately identified the need to address ageism, which is especially prevalent in Western culture. “By changing views and expectations of aging, it is our view that society will not only manage population aging better, but also promote a new vision of aging,” said Milner. “In that sense, we are not just shifting perceptions; we are changing lives.”
This is our starting point. Our rallying cry that signals the beginning of the end to the accepted ageist practices hiding in plain sight in society today.
Kathy Sporre, CSA, has served as the director of the Fergus Falls Senior Center for over 20 years. They are the first nationally accredited senior center in Minnesota, and winner of the Minnesota Nonprofit Excellence Award. Sporre was appointed as a delegate to the National Institute of Senior Centers and cochaired a national task force that researched and reported on New Models of Senior Centers.
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (eleventh edition). (2004). “Ageism.” Springfield MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.
- Thomas, W. H. Video: Elderhood Rising: The Dawn of a New World Age. Available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijbgcX3vIWs
- Levy, B., Slade, M., Kunkel, S. & Kasl, S.(2002). Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 261–270.
- Niles-Yokum, K., & Wagner, D. L. (2011). The Aging Networks. A Guide to Programs and Services (seventh edition), p. 35. New York NY: Springer Publishing Company.
- Woolf, L. M. Ageism. Retrieved from http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/ageism.html.
- ICAA’s Changing the Way We Age® Campaign www.changingthewayweage.com
- Elderhood Rising: The Dawn of a New World Age www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijbgcX3vIWs
- Treat Me, Not My Age: A Doctor’s Guide to Getting the Best Care as You or a Loved One Gets Older Author: Mark Lachs, MD, MPH Publisher: Penguin Group, 2010
- “Ageism in America” Author: The Anti-Ageism Taskforce at the International Longevity Center Publisher: International Longevity Center–USA, 2006