This is a guest post from Linda Bright, a staff writer and a public relations coordinator for MyNursingDegree.com. As a former hospital administrator, she writes primarily about healthcare reform, patient rights and other issues related to the healthcare industry.
Ageism is alive and well in our society—of that, there can be no question.
Sometimes this ageism takes the form of an isolated incident between two people—a flash of violence or an angry outburst that leaves an emotional scar. Sometimes it manifests as a pattern of behavior, as is the case with prolonged instances of neglect or reoccurring sexual abuse. Other times, ageism is systemic—so thoroughly engrained in our cultural consciousness that it actually shapes our political and economic institutions.
Yet, despite its prevalence in our society, it sometimes seems like ageism is the one form of discrimination that people aren’t willing to talk about. Our society openly (albeit heatedly) discusses racism, classism, sexism and homophobia. It seems strange to me that we’re so conspicuously silent on the question of age-based discrimination.
There are two factors that, I believe, force discussions of ageism underground and prevent a politically productive dialogue. They are:
Age (like death) is one of those subjects that our society prefers to discuss in abstract and depersonalized terms. While each of us understands that we will inevitably age, there’s something about the process of picturing ourselves as “elderly” that makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like being reminded that we won’t always be as fast and strong as we are now.
What many of us fail to understand is that ageing is not an inherently negative process. We think and talk about ageing like it’s a disease, but it’s not—in many ways, to age is to become more beautiful. Ageing means losing some things, but you gain many other things in exchange—experience, wisdom and new opportunities. If you let yourself get caught up in the physical dimension of the ageing process, you’ll end up missing out on all the other things that make getting older worthwhile.
If we reframe our understanding of the ageing process (and distance ourselves from the assumption that ageing is inherently negative) we can create a space for positive and productive discussion about ageism. Changing ourselves (and our understanding of ageing) is a prerequisite to any sort of cultural shift or policy-oriented discussion about the effects of ageism.
One of the main reasons many people don’t openly discuss ageism is because there’s a large segment of the population that isn’t aware that ageism is an issue. Or, if they are aware that it’s an issue, they aren’t aware of how prevalent and harmful it can be.
Do you blame them? The media portrays older adults as frail, fragile, asexual, senile and useless, then frames this portrayal as humorous. Is it really any wonder people’s gut instinct is to make jokes whenever they’re asked to address the issue of ageism?
Even activists who take discrimination seriously and work hard to end structural inequality sometimes need to be reminded of the extent to which age dictates how people are treated. Sometimes, when fighting discrimination, people have a tendency to put ageism on the backburner in order to focus on issues of race, class and gender.
While these issues are undoubtedly important, it is a mistake to see ageism as something distinct from discussions of class, race and gender. Identity, after all, is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. When we prioritize one dimension of identity at the expense of another, we render ourselves incapable of understanding the myriad of ways in which different types of discrimination intersect and/or contradict.
The best way to combat fear and ignorance is through education. We have to be willing to initiate educational discussions that provoke people to question the assumptions that shape their understanding of the world. When we see people acting in accordance with ageist assumptions, we have a moral obligation to speak out—that’s the only way these types of productive discussions actually happen.