Women’s Health Week 2022: how ageism impacts the wellbeing of older women

Three diverse senior women embrace in park, smiling


Women’s Health Week 2022: how ageism impacts the wellbeing of older women

Most of us know the aircraft emergency safety message: fit your own oxygen mask first, before helping others. 

It’s simple enough: if you run out of oxygen, you will be no use to anyone else, including those who might be totally reliant on you, like infants and young children. It’s often used as a broad metaphor for the importance of looking after yourself in order to be able to look after others.  We know it is true, yet it’s a message frequently ignored by women when it comes to our roles and relationships with family and friends.

This year, the theme of Women’s Health Week 2022 is, ‘It’s all about you’.  It’s a shout out to women, girls and gender diverse people across Australia to remember to take the time to put themselves and their own health and wellbeing first. 

Organised by the Jean Hailes Foundation, Women’s Health Week 2022 is celebrated each year to put the focus on women’s good health and wellbeing, to inspire women to get educated about the health challenges they face and to take action. This year it runs from 5-11 September.  

The all about you theme is especially poignant for older women. Women of all ages are often guilty of prioritising the needs of family and friends while leaving their own needs to wilt at the bottom of the list.   In older women, the attitudes and behaviours can be deeply ingrained, stemming from decades of expectations about what ‘good women’ should do, as well as social or cultural norms that see ‘self-care’ as selfish or self-indulgent.     

But that’s not the only challenge for older women. It’s well known that discrimination against girls and women leads to disadvantage in education, in participation in the workforce, in income and in superannuation across the lifespan; but the gender gap in health and wellbeing is less well known.  

As all people get older, they can face age-related stereotyping and discrimination too. It’s called ageism.  But, unlike other types of discrimination, it is so widespread and accepted that we hardly notice it… until it affects us. For women, it can be a double whammy.  

Embrace ageing

If women in general tend to see themselves and their needs as less important than the needs of others, older women often feel they have even lesser value!  It’s beginning to change a little but we still live in an ageist society that openly promotes the message that young is good and desirable and old is bad and sad, and should be denied or avoided as long as possible.

The good news is that many of our assumptions about getting older are grossly outdated or just plain wrong.  Yes, there are certainly increased risks of ill-health and incapacity as we get older but, with continuing improvements in healthcare and disease prevention, most of us today live in pretty good health into our 70s and 80s and even well beyond.  

What’s more, we are continuing to participate actively in a range of ways and roles that give our later lives shape and purpose, as well as ongoing pleasure.

One big reason we need to shift these negative attitudes to growing older is because they are literally bad for us and prevent us from ageing well. In fact, these negative attitudes can even limit our lifespan.

The World Health Organisation asked Yale School of Public Health to conduct the largest ever international study examining the health consequences of ageism.  It found widespread evidence of ‘system-level’ discrimination, with older people being denied access to medical treatments or receiving treatments for shorter durations. The Yale team also found evidence that ageism led to worse outcomes in several mental health conditions, including depression, and a number of physical health conditions, including shorter life expectancy.

Here it is: the research shows that older people with negative attitudes to ageing live, on average, 7.5 years less than people who have positive attitudes to ageing. 

Old and proud

Remember, our health is determined by our genetic composition, as well as by physical, cultural and societal environmental conditions, and we are all different. The message for older women — indeed for everyone — this Women’s Health Week is a simple one. Don’t let outdated, irrational attitudes and beliefs about growing older stop you from living the best life you can in the best health you can.   

Every single one of us is growing older and, yes, some of us will get sick and we may even become frail and need some assistance to live independently. This can happen to us at younger ages too. But we are lucky to live in a society where we can deal with all that. In any case, as the EveryAGE Counts campaign reminds us, ‘frailing’ is not failing!  

It’s time to push back, stop apologising and stop putting our physical and mental health at further risk.  We never stop being the same people with the same rights and value to our communities and society as everyone else. Older people matter, just as much as people of any age… or any race, religion, ability or culture. Think about it!

If you’re an older woman, remember this Women’s Health Week, it is all about you too!  Watch out for the different themes and messages each day of the week and use it as a reminder that positive attitudes toward growing older can lead not only to better physical and mental health, but a longer life.  Yep, older women rock!