Efforts to combat prejudice based on race, sex, gender identity, and national origin have raised awareness of the harm caused by stereotypes. When people are not seen as individuals but are judged because of their immutable characteristics, they are deprived of fair treatment and equal opportunities.
Sadly, while America has made progress in educating its citizens about the damaging impact of racism and sexism, it has been slow to recognize the social cost of ageism. While colleges, the military, government agencies, and large businesses have addressed stereotypes and harassment that create barriers to success because of race and sex, they have paid scant attention to discriminatory attitudes that keep older adults from participating in society on an equal footing with younger people.
Age is a risk factor for certain diseases, including dementia. Yet growing older does not, by itself, impair physical or mental abilities. The process of aging is unique to each individual. Some people are mentally sharper at 80 than most people who are still in their 30s. At the age of 100, Fauja Singh ran a full marathon in Toronto, a feat that less than 1% of the population has even attempted.
Some stereotypes about aging are simply false. Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, has marshaled evidence to disprove more than a dozen negative stereotypes. For example, the stereotype that people become less creative as they grow older is belied by artists and musicians who have done their best work later in life.
The belief that older adults can’t learn new things is equally false. Studies show that older people often have learning skills that many younger people lack, including patience and the ability to reason without jumping to conclusions. The biggest barrier to learning for older adults may be a lack of self confidence instilled by their constant exposure to jokes about aging brains.
Other stereotypes lack context. Professor Levy notes that reaction times might worsen with age, but that experience allows older people to compensate for those changes by blocking out distractions and increasing their focus on the task at hand.
Ageist stereotypes reinforce a cultural belief that older adults no longer contribute to society. Ageism perpetuates the myth that older people are a burden. Studies suggest that seniors internalize those messages and may come to view themselves in an increasingly negative light as they continue to grow older. Professor Levy’s research supports the conclusion that people who have “a positive self-perception of aging” live substantially longer than those who perceive aging as a negative experience.
Fighting Against Ageist Stereotypes
Changing attitudes based on stereotypes is never easy. Since people begin to internalize stereotypes when they are young, educating adolescents about ageism is an essential starting point. We can’t all be teachers in schools, but we can all remind our younger family members that it is wrong to make negative assumptions about older adults.
Relatives, friends, caregivers, healthcare providers, and anyone else who has a relationship with an older person can help them battle their acceptance of ageist stereotypes. It isn’t enough to say, “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” People can take active steps to reframe negative stereotypes in a way that will encourage older adults to embrace positivity.
Children who give gifts to their parents should not assume that their parents are technophobic. If a parent would benefit from a smartphone, give one as a gift and casually discuss the apps that might be beneficial or interesting. Giving an older relative a gadget sends the message that older adults are just as capable as kids of navigating technology.
Don’t assume that an older adult will have no interest in social media or in apps that might be geared to younger people. Older content creators on TikTok have amassed millions of followers. Calling an older friend’s attention to a TikTok user who appeals to a senior audience is a simple way to fight against ageist stereotypes.
Positive interactions with older adults also help combat stereotypes they may have internalized. Asking an older friend if she wants to take a walk or learn how to play Pickleball lets the friend know that you don’t view her as too frail to exercise. Playing word games with older adults makes clear that you respect their mental acuity. Asking an older person for advice reinforces the belief that their life experience is important.
Like all forms of prejudice, ageism will not easily be eradicated. Everyone can nevertheless play a role by avoiding ageist remarks and by making clear to older adults in our lives that they are respected and valued.