What is ageism and how does it show up in every day life?

In a world that’s obsessed with anti-ageing and invents a product almost every hour that’s aimed at preventing the inevitable, it’s only fitting to address why we should care about ageism.

But first things first, what is ageism? It’s a type of discrimination that involves prejudice against people based on their age. Unfortunately, it’s not only affecting the elderly but also the young and can be seen in a wide variety of settings and situations including social interactions, the workplace and even in healthcare.

The term ageism was coined by gerontologist Robert N. Butler to highlight discrimination against older adults. However, since then the term is widely used for any age-based discrimination, including that which involves prejudice against children, teenagers, adults or senior citizens.

Most of us don’t realise just how serious the impact of ageism could become especially if it’s deliberate and intentional. At the same time, some discrimination that takes place in our society could very well be subconscious and goes unrecognised just because it’s widely accepted by society. Exercising great amount of self-awareness when interacting with others could help us highlight whether we are falling into this trap.

One of the key drivers for writing this article is exactly that; to raise awareness and answer the question why we should care about ageism? How is that going to help us navigate our day to day lives but also make others around us feel connected and appreciated?! Perhaps it could also help you understand how to be more conscious of bias in your job, business or professional career.

Why we should care about ageism is highlighted in this image by WHO

Why we should care about ageism

So how does ageism show up in action? It can range from innocent subtle actions all the way to blatant acts of discrimination. Here are a few examples:

  1. Being excluded from a group, such as at school or work
  2. Receiving negative comments about someone’s appearance because of ageing
  3. Being laughed at or joked about because of limitations relating to ageing (whether because someone is a child, young adult or senior citizen)
  4. Being pushed out of your job or forced to retire
  5. Being passed over for promotion or salary raise
  6. Not being taken seriously
  7. Doctors sending an elderly person to undergo tests and unnecessary procedures because of age related risk factors. Depending on countries, this is also how doctors get paid thus having extra motivation to do this.
  8. Being ignored or not taken seriously
  9. Not having access to learning opportunities

Another reason why we should care about ageism is because it goes beyond just a particular age group (i.e elderly). You are also likely to hear the term ‘reverse ageism’, which has been used to describe how younger adults can also face prejudice and discrimination because of their age. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that when asked to describe younger workers, some of the most common terms to come to mind were negative, including ‘entitled’, ‘coddled’, ‘radical’, and ‘disrespectful’.

Everybody deserves to live with dignity and embrace their age

what would a world without ageism look like

Regardless which side you look at, discrimination is never the answer. One of the key reasons why we should care about ageism is because we can do a lot about it. As always, change in behaviour starts with the ‘self’. Furthermore, we can model behaviours that will help others foster greater awareness about their attitudes, believes and perceptions about age.

In significant ways, businesses can also make an impact if intentionally acknowledging the problem itself. From their internal policies, reward structures, learning and development programs all the way to the integration of actual solutions for the ageing population.

Working with the elderly, we’ve heard a number of stories that make us concerned that our communities are simply not doing enough. We found that becoming curious about some of the symptoms of age-based discrimination could provide an insight into solutions that we could be part of.

Living happy and independent lives for longer is really important to our ageing clients. When certain conditions like the early onset of dementia present themselves, it can be really scary and concerning both for the individual but also their family. Finding solutions for keeping them safe and confident could be a challenge.

What comes to mind is our origin story and just why we’ve started mCare Digital back in 2012. Our Father, Michael wanted to maintain his independence and live in his own home as he was recovering from a stroke. We were however increasingly worried about him and his well-being and wanted to see if there was some kind of technology that could alert us if he was in distress or needed immediate help.

The personal emergency alarms available at the time were falling short of our expectations when it came to quality and reliability so we had to take action. That’s how the mCareWatch was inspired and launched in 2012.

The ‘m’ in mCareWatch has dual meaning and stands firstly for ‘Michael’ and recognises our father as the inspiration behind the company and also for ‘Mobility’ in terms of what it offers wearers; working anywhere and anytime for Connected Caring™.

It often comes down to maintaining dignity; that sense of pride that we can go on with life not despite our newly developed health challenges but because of them. That sense of independence and the feeling of reliability and support that a personal emergency alarm can facilitate and thus prevent us from needing round the clock help.

Elderly woman wearing the mCareWatch personal emergency alarm

Health risk associate with ageism and research findings

There is no doubt about it, ageism can have some serious effects on mental and physical health. Countries that have a higher population of healthy older adults report lower rates of ageist attitudes, suggesting that ageism might be linked to health status and life expectancy.

One of the key reasons why we should care about ageism is because it’s directly linked to the health and well-being of your loved ones and likely affect you too at some point. It can lead to a shortened lifespan, more rapid cognitive decline, increased levels of loneliness and reduced access to education and employment. But knowing there are assistive technology solutions for some age related challenges could be a good starting point in this battle against ageism.

Research recently conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission confirms ageist attitudes can be changed through educational intervention. A total of 329 aged care and community workers were surveyed before and after a brief educational workshop designed to shift ageist thinking within the aged care and community sectors. It only took a couple of hours of awareness training and there were significant improvements in the attitudes among the cohort afterwards, including further improvements implemented in action after a survey was conducted 3 months post training.

This is one of the many examples of why we should care about ageism. Something as simple as awareness training and making ageism a discussion point resulted in:

  1. 90% of participants rethought the way they communicated with older people
  2. 87% had a conversation with people about ageism
  3. 86% thought about what they could do to shift ageist attitudes in their workplace
  4. 82% rethought their attitudes towards ageing

This topic was also covered in a recent article by The Australian Agenda and goes further in depth about the findings of the research and next steps especially in the aged care sector.

In conclusion: why ageism matters?

In summary, ageism can be detrimental for our society in general. It could lead to negative impacts on one’s physical and mental health. It feeds social isolation, reduces life expectancy and creates an unnecessary divide. It’s not only a problem for the elderly; it could very well affect your kids or teenagers/young adults. Let’s do our part in reducing this kind of bias. What do you say?