Ageism: a silent but preventable evil

Ageism manifests itself in very subtle ways but can lead to low self-esteem in older adults.

Published: 09th February 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th February 2020 07:33 AM   |  A+A-

To combat the issues of ageism, we need to revolutionise attitudes and challenge the negative stereotypes.

To combat the issues of ageism, we need to revolutionise attitudes and challenge the negative stereotypes.

Everything matched my occupational profile. But nevertheless I received a rejection because of my age. Born 1943, not stout and fat, not lazy and sluggish but instead still energetic and fit. On one hand, people talk about skilled worker shortage and on the other hand, being 65-plus year one has no choice.”

This was a little excerpt picked up from an informal conversation between two men where one of them was quite dissatisfied with the rejection in a particular job interview.

This statement manifests features of ageism, still deeply rooted in the dynamics of our so called “progressive” society. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Ageism as the stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination towards people on the basis of age. Described in 1969 by Gerontologist Robert Neil Butler, it gradually separated itself as an independent construct from racism and sexism. In this article, emphasis will be laid on the ageism directed at the greying population.

There are 600 million people who are 60 and older in the world and the number is expected to double by 2025. While medical science has advanced and is majorly contributing towards extending lifespan, it is sad that not much has been done to study the societal attitude about old age and the process of aging in general. It comes as no surprise that ageism is the most common form of prevalent prejudice. Ageism has diverse implications. It can be felt in a 70-year old lady’s words, “Depression is a part of the process of ageing” or when an old father complains about being a ‘burden’ to his children. Its impact can be felt in the arenas of employment, health care and various other spheres as well. One sector largely contaminated by ageist views is the employment sector.

The Hollywood comedy ‘The Intern’ interestingly portrays the story of a retired top executive seeking an internship at a startup company. His daily interactions with his younger colleagues, the initial challenges of not being taken seriously in this new tech-based organisation, coupled with his gradual overcoming of the ageist bias, amazingly captures the movie’s punch line “Experience never gets old.” In an era where corporate workforce is so heavily dominated by the youth, it has often become very difficult for the Baby Boomers or Gen-X to make their mark in this realm. Older employees are often looked down upon by the employers even if they are in no way less efficient, productive and healthy than their younger counterparts.

They’re often shifted or promoted to less important roles of the company just as a way to “bide or pass their time” until they retire. Ageism manifests itself in very subtle ways but can lead to low self-esteem in older adults. The course of correcting a wrong begins with the realisation that a problem exists. For ageism to be accepted as a real problem, we need to talk about it much like we talk about sexism and any other form of discrimination.

Organisations that sincerely want to reach their full potential and improve retention and productivity must strive to create equitable workplaces where all workers irrespective of age, gender or any other difference, feel valued and respected. Behind this subtle yet powerful discrimination are a series of myths associated with age. Older workers are often perceived to be technologically inept, resistant to change, less innovative and adaptable.

However, what is clearly overlooked is the fact that older workers have much more experience, not just of a particular field but of life in general. This makes them a much-needed pillar of support for any organisation that is looking to create a stable and sustainable future for itself. Older workers are also much more likely to stay in a job. The impact of Ageism is also felt quite intensely in the health services in our country.

Older people are often perceived as bed-blockers, draining our precious resources. Older patients are often seen as frail, ill, dependent and incompetent. This sort of perception has been shown to affect physicians’ decisions, leading them to be less likely to diagnose a disorder and therefore less likely to treat the older person. This unconscious bias often goes under-recognised. As a result, both the physical and mental health-care needs of older people are not being met. Research has shown only 1 in 6 older people with depression receive a diagnosis.

A lot miss out on the chance of receiving psychological services, even though this type of treatment has been shown to be as effective for them as the younger adults. We recently passed October 1, marked by WHO as the World Elder Day. To combat the issues of ageism, we need to revolutionise attitudes and challenge the negative stereotypes. Within health and social care, there is an exigent need for a more informed workforce, one which recognizes the different ways mental health problems manifests themselves in the older adults and the benefits of treatment. By society, we mean every single one of us. Age is universal and it is high time we initiated the positive change for our collective future. Change begins with us. To quote Butler, “Ageism is a preventable but silent and repetitive killer.”

(Chehak Gidwani, psychology student at LSR, New Delhi,contributed to the article).

DR. DEBANJAN BANERJEE, Geriatric Psychiatrist, NIMHANS, Bangalore dr.djan88@gmail.com

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