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It’s October and it’s the time of the year when we pause to reflect on older people in our communities and our lives – the roles they play, the contributions they make, the challenges they face and the fact that, day by day, we are all getting older.
Ageism Awareness Day was developed by the EveryAGE Counts campaign to focus attention on the existence and impacts of ageism in Australia. Evidence shows that building awareness and understanding is critical to changing deeply held negative community attitudes to ageing and older people. These attitudes are so deeply held, many of us don’t even question them and think they’re perfectly normal and ok.
They’re not OK and we need to change them, or we will continue to live in a world where older people are generally not valued and accorded the same rights and respect as other members of the community.
What do you know about ageism?
Most of us are familiar with forms of discrimination against certain groups of people and understand why they are wrong. Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism… they’re all forms of prejudice based on intrinsic human attributes of a person that can’t be changed.
But ageism — discrimination against people on the basis of their age, another perfectly normal attribute — is much less recognised and understood.
Ageism means treating someone unfairly solely because of their age. There are three parts to it: stereotyping (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act). Ageism can be experienced at any age but it is a particular problem for older people, because it comes from the common acceptance of those negative attitudes and beliefs about getting older and the lesser value of older people.
Think about it: how do you view growing older? What kinds of assumptions do you make about people based on their age – their views, their interests, their capabilities? Have you ever watched an older couple holding hands and thought, aawww, bless, how cute? You might be having ‘positive thoughts’ about that older couple but those thoughts come from your assumptions that older people don’t have the same interest in or capacity for romantic or sexual relationships. Well, think again – after all, older people are just adults with a few more years on the clock.
What you can do this Ageism Awareness Day
To help focus your thoughts this Ageism Awareness Day, we have put together a short list of ideas to consider and some helpful dos and don’ts, especially if you’re involved in providing care and support for older people.
- Be mindful of your language – people are diverse for lots of reasons and age is just part of the big mix. Say ‘older people’, not ‘the elderly’. Never use disrespectful language to refer to an older person – like ‘old codger’, ‘old dear’, geriatric, ‘senior cit’ etc. At the same time, don’t say ‘sweet’, ‘adorable’ or ‘cute’. Save those for words for small children and animals.
- Beware the language of kindness and care too – it can be patronising and insulting and leave people feeling disempowered. Show kindness with respect and never treat an older person like a child (that includes using a sing-song voice!).
- Never assume you know what an older person wants or needs or can or cannot do – our interests and preferences generally stay with us all our lives and our abilities can change at any age. Assume anything is possible, always ask and never think you know best.
- While you’re leaving your assumptions behind, you’ll need to check some of the language that goes with them. For example, avoid the word, ‘still’: ‘She is still …’ eg. dancing, driving, going to the gym, wearing jeans, etc. It can suggest that older people aren’t normally allowed to do these things… Likewise, it’s not ‘amazing’ that an older person is fixing computers or playing the saxophone or dancing. People do all sorts of different things at all ages.
- Don’t speak ‘for’ an older person unless there is a reason to, and you have their agreement. And if you are accompanying an older person, don’t let doctors, waiters, shop assistants or anyone else talk to you, instead of to the older person.
- Don’t automatically take over tasks that the person wants to do for themselves, thinking you’re making it easier for them. Let them decide.
Finally, have a think about the message from ageism activist, author and TED talker, Ashton Applewhite, from her 2017 TED talk, Let’s end ageism. It’s been watched over 1.8 million times and is an excellent introduction to ageism – the only form of discrimination that every one of us will likely experience if we have the privilege of growing old.
“Ageism is a totally illogical prejudice that pits us against our future selves. Ageing is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all.”
About the author
Keryn Curtis is a communication and engagement specialist who is a well-regarded and longstanding aged care advocate and has been deeply engaged with health and ageing related issues.