Confronting Ageism

I had a spirited discussion with someone last week on the topic of ageism.  For me, it is a hot button issue and for him it was a sort of an “oh well.”  I see it is as vital to our world of elder care and to all of us as we inevitably age and he saw it as more a concept that people like me dream about.  Maybe he’s right but, in my heart of hearts, I just don’t think so.  I think that ageism is a problem that affects so many aspects of our society and disadvantages both ends of the age spectrum, especially the old.

Ageism reared its ugly head throughout the pandemic.  Older adults, especially those living in residential settings, were confined to their rooms, stripped of their rights to see their families, to interact with one another, to participate in activities and to make their own choices.  It was as if they had no voice because, in truth, they were not allowed to have a voice.

Ageism pervades our media, from advertising to memes and beyond. The video of older adults who are trying to give Alexa commands and come up with any and every other name but the correct one—is not funny, it is ageist.  Elders are often portrayed as confused, frail and incompetent.  Yet the truth is that many older adults are active, vital and savvy.  Not only that but they control a major portion of both the wealth and consumer spending in the United States. And yet these false images persist.

Ageism causes people to ignore the needs of elders.  In medical offices, attorney offices and other professional settings, often an older adult accompanied by an adult child is ignored and the questions and information directed at the child.  More than once when in a medical setting with my mother-in-law I had to put my hand up in a “Stop” motion and remind them that she was the patient/client and should be directly addressed.

Ageism keeps people from choosing older adult settings for their careers. They think that elders are not competent, that they have nothing to share, that they are “less than.” But the truth is that our elders are often “more than” with knowledge and experience that they can uniquely contribute.

And it is also ageism that allows elder abuse to affect more than 3 million older adults in this country every year.  Why ageism? Because the abused elder is not believed, is not seen as credible and the abuser who says “Oh, she is so clumsy” to explain an injury or “She wants me to have it” as they siphon off funds is seen as more believable.  We had a case of an abused elder who was in our elder abuse shelter.  Her daughter was both financially exploiting her and physically abusing her.  We called the police and asked them to take her statement. The officer was reluctant, telling us that his grandfather had been confused and “always said people were hitting him.” At our insistence he spent an hour with this victim and left the conversation with this very bright and cognitively intact woman with a new understanding.

We are all aging every day.  It is inevitable and we are grateful for the time that we have.  But as we approach advanced age, do we want to be lumped together in a group of voiceless incompetents? Do we want to have people see us for who we were, and are, as opposed to just “one of those old people?” I think we do.  And for those of us who care for older adults, and for whom enhancing quality of life is a commitment and a passion, calling out ageism when we see it and eliminating it where we can is part of that commitment.  Ageism is one of the last “isms” to be labeled and it will take all of us to end it.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ's Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is past chair of LeadingAge and the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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