Battling Ageism

On: April 21, 2016

By Pamela Leland, PhD, Executive Director of The Hickman


Humiliating, disrespecting, diminishing someone because of their age.

Some say it is the last acceptable area of prejudice.

We’ve made progress in addressing many areas of prejudice in our society. It is largely unacceptable to discriminate against minorities based on race or ethnicity, or women based on their gender. We’ve changed our language to be more sensitive to people with physical and cognitive disabilities. We are growing less tolerant of those who speak out against those who are gay or lesbian.

But ageism?

It is everywhere.  And it is entirely – routinely – acceptable. It only takes a stroll down the greeting card aisle to see that making fun of the elderly is acceptable – even good business.

The tide may be changing however. As we begin to see the demographic and economic impact of the “silver tsunami,” businesses and services providers will be swayed by the preferences and sensibilities of the growing senior population. As with most grassroots movements, when a large number of people bring the power of their numbers to the market, things change. At some point, the power of Elders will demand a change in our ageist culture.

Confronting ageism isn’t a new idea. Maggie Kuhn, who was forced to retire from the Presbyterian Church at age 65, channeled her anger and frustration into the founding of the Gray Panthers in 1970. She is attributed with being a driving force in building national awareness of systemic and social discrimination against the elderly. In advocating for the rights of the elderly, she saw success in seeking changes in the regulation of nursing homes.

Maggie Kuhn also saw the arc of fighting ageism when she said, “By the year 2020, the year of perfect vision, the old will outnumber the young.”

Breaking down any prejudice isn’t easy. Nor is it quick. We only need to look to efforts to eliminate racism and sexism to understand the fight ahead of us. As with these movements, combatting ageism will require commitment and intention – individually and collectively.

Changing attitudes about aging – eliminating ageism – must start with ourselves. We have to become aware of our own biases and prejudices.

Have you thought – or said – “Isn’t he too old to do that?” …  “Wow, she looks great for her age.” …  “He is too young for her.” … “She really should act her age.”

Are you surprised when you hear that … Elders run marathons … travel the world … have sex … dance the tango?

Are you shocked when you hear that Elders make art … write books … create music … learn new languages?

Do you laugh at jokes that make fun of older people?

Do you pity or feel sorry for older people?

Do you treat older people like children … i.e., people who can’t speak for themselves or make their own decisions?

Do you try and tell an older person what to do … because you know what is best for them?

When you meet someone who is retired, do you see someone who is no longer contributing to society … or do you acknowledge a lifetime of experience waiting to be shared?

What words and images come to mind when someone says “senior citizen” or “retired”? Are they positive and affirming words and images or negative words, dehumanizing images and words and phrases that infantilize Elders?

Confronting our own feelings of ageism is the essential first step in changing society’s attitudes about aging. If we can’t see our own prejudices we can’t work to break down the prejudices that exist in our communities. By sharing our own journeys of growth and awareness, we can help others become more aware of their own biases and stereotypes about aging. We can begin to speak out against ageism and call others to join us in treating Elders with the care, love and respect that is deserved.

We are fortunate that there is already a movement to eliminate ageism. There are groups and resources available to help educate, inform and advocate. You only need to join in.  Considering checking out the following organizations as a start: