Our decades-old attitudes toward aging can be harmful to our health
Of course, it’s all meant in good fun.
Journeying through life with a sense of humor is often how we cope with challenging times and experiences. We even tend to take a lighthearted approach to getting older, perhaps as a distraction from those uncertainties that come with aging.
That would explain the department store birthday décor for the 50-and-older set, which tends to include everything from black balloons and “over the hill” party favors to walking canes and fiber pills. We kid about dining during the “early bird special” and going to bed at a time that’s far earlier than when we used to go out.
The stereotypes and clichés have been around for years, and while they’re meant to be in jest, they can result in potentially harmful attitudes and behaviors on which we rarely dwell. Jokes and observations about getting older can lead to the misperception that all older adults are frail and have diminishing mental skills.
According to an article in The Conversation, research shows that ageist attitudes can harm the health of older adults. The article cites the World Health Organization, which acknowledges ageism as “the last socially accepted form of prejudice.” A Washington Post article refers to “everyday ageism,” where we tend—through our actions and words—to reinforce the idea that “old is bad (and young is good).” Need help with your cell phone or laptop? Call a teenager, because surely an older adult won’t know how technology works! We retain those negative messages about being older to the point they become reality.
Musician Ben Folds explores the topic of ageism in his song “Fred Jones, Part 2,” where a 25-year newspaper employee “sits alone at his desk in the dark,” his belongings packed into boxes because “a man’s here to take him downstairs.”
We don’t know much more of Fred’s story, but the song provides a broader look at the cycle of aging in the workplace: “Today’s just a day like the day that he started/No one is left here that knows his first name/And life barrels on like a runaway train/When the passengers change/They don’t change anything/You get off; someone else can get on/…and I’m sorry, Mr. Jones/It’s time.” Whether or not you remain qualified and of value to the company, you’re shown the door once you hit a certain age.
When is old?
But what age is considered old? Bob Horrocks, who served as SourcePoint’s executive director until his retirement in 2019, said he has a rule for determining that.
“I was once asked by a Delaware County Commissioner during a presentation, ‘How old is old?’ I quickly responded that old is at least 15 years older than your current age,” Horrocks said. “This was not an original thought. I had heard it while studying gerontology in graduate school, and even back then it rang true. When I was in my late 40s, 65 seemed pretty old to me. Now, at 69, not so much. Now old is maybe 85. Even then, I have known some pretty old 50-year-olds and some pretty young 85-year-olds.”
The point, Horrocks said, is that ageism happens “when we allow all the negative stereotypes about growing older to affect how we think about and act toward people who are older.
“My experience is that it happens in subtle ways and usually out of a sense of caring, but without thinking about how this impacts the recipient,” said Horrocks, who added that his personal ageism pet peeve is when he’s called “sweetie” or “honey.” “I was called sweetie often when I was under the age of 8, but at some point it stopped until I was in my mid 60s. It is always said in a friendly way and I know that it not said to offend. But, it does somewhat offend me.”
A global and local issue
The pandemic shined a light on ageism around the world. COVID-related deaths of older adults were often associated with other “underlying health conditions” implying that all people of a certain age are unhealthy, and ageism put forth the message that younger people didn’t have to worry about getting COVID. The article in The Conversation cites an interview with Ukraine’s ex-health minister, who said people over age 65 were already “corpses” and suggested the government focus on those “still alive.”
Such occurrences around the world perhaps made us more aware of how ageism manifests itself in our backyard. Fara Waugh, SourcePoint’s executive director, said Delaware County is no stranger to ageist attitudes.
“Unfortunately, ageism exists here as it does throughout our society,” said Waugh, citing a good friend who worked beyond age 70 and was referred to as someone who is “still working.” “This is ageist language; the words are not only demeaning and disrespectful, but they contribute to stereotypes of what someone of a certain age is expected to look, act, sound, or be like.”
Waugh said various assumptions made about older adults contribute to ageism.
“If they have difficulty with technology, they are presumed less intelligent; if they don’t contribute to a conversation because they are struggling to hear, they are presumed to be disinterested,” Waugh said. “This treatment of our most experienced citizens fails to appreciate or even recognize the valuable contributions they make to our great community.”
Amy Schossler, director of community programs at SourcePoint, said ageism often contributes to the public perception of programs that SourcePoint offers.
“When I speak to people about our community programs and mention that we have a wide range of fitness programs that include spinning classes, yoga, and strength training, they automatically assume that these are watered-down classes for those who can’t exercise like they once did,” Schossler said. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our classes are no different than what you would find in a YMCA or other fitness center. Our members are strong, break a sweat, and are meeting their own personal fitness goals.”
Along with a decrease in strength, ageism is also often associated with an increase in vulnerability, resulting in older adults being frequent targets of scams. Karen Waltermeyer, director of client services at SourcePoint, said they are frequently sharing information about scams with in-home care clients so they can stay sharp and combat any attempts.
“We also continue to advocate for the right of individuals to make their own decisions based on their lifestyles, cultures, and preferences,” Waltermeyer said. “Well-intentioned friends, family members, and others may not agree with the decision of the older adult. Unless there is reason to believe the person does not have the capacity to make an informed decision, we support the older adult’s decisions on how they are living their life. We need to continue to respect our older community members in this area.”
A need for change
Horrocks said in his experience, the majority of older adults are “fiercely independent, almost to a fault.”
“Most provide much more than they seek,” he said. “We are relatively active, healthy, and engaged with our family and community. We pay lots of taxes, but are relatively infrequent users of local public services. We spend money locally and provide lots of care and assistance to children and grandchildren. We volunteer at all sorts of public and nonprofit organizations.
“The negative stereotypes that have been passed down for generations are simply not true for most, yet they stubbornly persist,” Horrocks added. “They are true for some and I have spent my professional life trying to make things better for this group of people. But, by ignoring the reality that older adults are a huge asset is a disservice to them and our community.”
Age-Friendly Delaware County aims to change that, with an ageism awareness campaign that will debut later this summer. While details of the campaign were still being finalized at press time, Schossler said the idea is to share messages about ageism, ageist language, and negative aging stereotypes with the community.
“We plan to introduce more intergenerational programming, where young and old can work together, as well as provide meaningful volunteer opportunities to help older adults continue to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways,” Schossler said.
SourcePoint’s Age-Friendly coordinator, Jackie Haight, said another focus will be a Positive Aging Campaign.
“This will include age-friendly awareness events, a documentary series at the Strand Theatre, increased access to educational opportunities through scholarships for the Lifelong Learning Institute at Ohio Wesleyan University, and promoting age-friendly choices through a social media campaign,” Haight said.
SourcePoint has also received funding from Greif, Inc. to create an age-friendly video that Haight hopes will help people “think before they speak and use an age-friendly lens in their communications, actions, and decision making.” The ultimate goal, she said, is to have people walk away thinking, “people of all ages do all things,” creating a mindset that replaces the age-related biases present in society.
“We know within any context that stereotypes and bias hurt people,” Haight said. “The age-friendly initiative focuses on those 55 and older, but it really benefits people of all ages. Anything that we accomplish within our age-friendly focus areas helps the community; if not you personally, then someone you love.”
Reaching that goal will require not only a concerted effort among members of the community, but also collaboration between community partners. Haight cited the Sage & Seekers Program, coordinated through one of SourcePoint’s partners, HelpLine’s Connections Volunteer Center.
“This is an eight-week intergenerational program that combats social isolation and dissolves age-related segregation within our communities. It meets the universal and compelling needs of both young adults and older adults to make sense of their lives through the simple art of conversation,” Haight said. “Older adults in the community have been connected with students from the Delaware City and Big Walnut school districts.”
Sage & Seekers creates an environment conducive to sharing stories, bridging the generation gap while honoring and empowering older adults. Haight said dissolving age-related segregation while learning from older adults can help young people become stronger leaders in the future, and it helps the older adults stay active while serving as mentors, leaders, role models, and advisors for the younger generation. It’s a win-win that Waltermeyer said will enhance our community today and well into the future.
“Every member of our community is valuable to the history, current, and future success of Delaware County,” Waltermeyer said. “Older adults bring a wealth of experience, insight, and energy that cannot be overlooked as our community continues to evolve.”
Age-Friendly Delaware County and its ageism awareness campaign are rooted in the belief that ageism can be combated at all levels—local, national, and global—through education.
“People make assumptions based solely on someone’s age,” Haight said. “The age-friendly initiative gives us an additional platform to educate the community on what great things people of all ages are doing. Through education, we can open their minds. We should not define people based on their age; we need to change the conversation. As long as we are growing and learning, age doesn’t matter.”
Waltermeyer called articles such as this one “a good starting point” to get the conversation about ageism going, with the work of Age-Friendly Delaware County helping to show those areas within the community where improvement is needed.
“Often, people do not even realize they are being ageist,” Waltermeyer said. “Telling someone they look great ‘for someone their age’ or jumping in to help someone without asking the individual if you can assist are both well intended; however, they may inadvertently leave the older adult feeling judged and stereotyped.”
Acknowledging ageist behavior—and particularly being aware when the behavior is inadvertent—can go a long way toward making ageism a thing of the past, in our community and beyond.
“We need to be open to hearing feedback from older adults and letting them know their input is important,” Waltermeyer said. “We need to keep them in the conversation.”
To learn more about Age-Friendly Delaware County and its ageism awareness campaign, visit MySourcePoint.org/age-friendly.
Jeff Robinson is a feature writer for SourcePoint’s My Communicator, in which this article was originally published in Summer 2021.