Taking a stand against ageism

Every year on 1 October, the international community comes together to commemorate the International Day of Older Persons. Ahead of this year’s celebration, which will take place on 6 October at UN Headquarters in New York, we asked Rosemary Lane, Focal Point on Ageing in UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development, what ageism is and why it is so important to take a stand against it.

For the International Day of Older Persons this year, we encourage people to “Take a Stand against Ageism.” What is ageism and why is it so important to take a stand against it?

“Ageism is a term coined to describe the stereotyping of, and discrimination against, people based on old age. Negative perceptions and assumptions about older persons remain deeply ingrained and overwhelmingly common in societies all around the world. These prejudices devalue older persons depicting them as frail, non-contributors and a burden to society.

Taking a stand against ageism is important because such misconceptions about older persons, old age and ageing shape how older persons are perceived and treated by their societies, and greatly hinders their social, economic and political inclusion and the enjoyment of their human rights.

Today, there are around 600 million people aged 60 years and over worldwide. This number will double by 2025 and will reach 1.4 billion by 2030. The number of persons aged 80 or over is also growing and at an ever faster rate – indicating considerable gains in longevity.

This is a remarkable achievement that can contribute significantly to the development process. However, ageist attitudes and age discrimination rob society of this opportunity, rendering older persons devalued, marginalised and isolated.”

Can you give us contexts/situations where ‘ageism’ exists?

“Ageism finds expression in individuals’ attitudes, institutional and policy practices, as well as in the media. For example many policy makers and researchers over-rely on demographic variables such as dependency ratios that classify older persons as “dependent” despite the fact that the share of older workers in the world’s workforce has been expanding to an yet unseen 14.3 per cent in 2014.

They also fail to recognise the unpaid care work that older persons provide to their family members, for example, through free childcare so parents can work, and full-time care to grandchildren whose parents have migrated for work or succumbed to terminal illness (or, alternatively: AIDS).

16-00110_2016_UN_International_Day_of_Older_Persons_(UNIDOP)_Digital_Cards_4-Final-(3)Age discrimination is reflected in employers’ recruitment and retention practices; in age limits, penalties and denials of service imposed by insurance service providers and financial institutions; and in the rationing of health care services; and is driven by preconceived notions and negative attitudes on the part of medical staff.

Ageism has also been identified as both a cause and a symptom of elder abuse, as well as one of the main reasons for which societies have been slow to recognise, and in some cases deal with, the issue. The image of ageing depicted in the media has generally been one of negative stereotyping, which seems to be more acceptable in the case of older persons than that of any other social group. What is worse is that such negative societal stereotypes can also cause older people in turn to view themselves as invisible and unworthy – therefore contributing to self-neglect; a growing and largely hidden type of elder abuse.”

How do we combat ageism?

“Stereotyping lies at the heart of ageism; as it does for sexism and racism. Much of it stems from a fear of ageing, triggered by age milestones such as plans for retirement. We’re not saying ageing is easy. Those fears are legitimate and real. However, unlike ageing, ageism is not inevitable.

We need a cultural shift that starts with stimulating debate on the pervasiveness of ageism, whether institutional or subtle, deliberate or unconscious, which has become an acceptable social norm. We need to foster the contributions and address the concerns of older persons by eliminating age barriers and combatting ageism.

We therefore urge member States and the entire world to prioritise this issue and enact laws and regulations to strengthen the protection of the rights of older persons and to eliminate all forms of discrimination, abuse and violence against them, including ageism in employment, healthcare and other settings.

Promoting a positive image of ageing and of older persons through active engagement of the mass media, including recognition of the positive contributions made by older persons to their families, communities and society, should also accompany these efforts. At the same time, it is important for all of us to frankly confront our own biases and prejudices – to recognise and challenge them within ourselves. This will contribute to a collective shift in societal attitudes.”

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