We recently observed International Youth Day on August 12. The objective of this occasion is to amplify the message that action is needed across all generations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and leave no one behind. It will also raise awareness about certain barriers to intergenerational solidarity, notably ageism, which impacts young and old persons, while having detrimental effects on society as a whole.
Ageism refers to stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age. An evergrowing social evil, ageism is not just restricted to older people. Casual comments like, “Oh he is a cricketer in his 30s?” or “How did she think of bearing a child at 45?” or “A kid like him has no chance among the veterans!”—all point to our ageist attitudes.
Ageism continues as an insidious and an often unaddressed issue in health, human rights and development, and has bearings on both older and younger populations around the world. In addition, it regularly intersects with other forms of bias (such as racism, sexism, ableism, mentalism) and impacts people in ways that prevent them from reaching their full potential and comprehensively contributing to their community.
The recent Global Report on Ageism launched by the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) in March 2021 highlights the alarming scenario. Every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes—leading to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons, costing societies billions of dollars each year. In sheer numbers, this data amounts to billions of “stereotyped thoughts towards ageing” that creates a global environment unsafe for older people. The ongoing pandemic has also been an eye-opener. The response to control Covid-19 has unveiled just how widespread ageism is—older and younger people have been stereotyped in public discourse and on social media. In some situations, age has been used as the sole criterion for access to medical care, vaccination, triage, life-saving therapies and for physical isolation.
Ageism has serious and wide-ranging consequences for people’s health and well-being. Among older people, ageism is associated with poorer physical and mental health, increased social isolation and loneliness, greater financial insecurity, decreased quality of life and premature death. An estimated 6.3 million cases of depression the world over are attributed to ageism.
India, with its rapid demographic transition towards an ageing population, shares a similar picture. Even though our nation traditionally boasts of solidarity, joint families, generational bonds and respect towards elders—data shows otherwise. Based on the Global Report on Ageism 2021, India is among several low- and middle-income countries including Nigeria and Yemen that account for the highest prevalence of ageism.
Examples of institutional ageism include discriminatory hiring practices or mandatory retirement ages; interpersonal ageism includes disrespecting or patronising older and younger adults, ignoring their points of view in decision-making or avoiding contact and interactions. Self-directed ageism refers to ageism towards oneself, like older individuals hesitant to learn new skills later in life or people in their twenties who think that they are too young for a job, making them reluctant to reply. HelpAge India in their report released in 2021, mentioned about the increase in ageism and elder abuse during the pandemic, unanswered cries for help, limited digital literacy among older people and reduced media awareness towards this social issue.
In this context, International Youth Day carries a special significance themed on “intergenerational solidarity”. Essentially, we must celebrate the bond between the old and the young. What can be better than this to combat ageism?
Bringing children or young adults and seniors together through planned, mutually beneficial activities and programs is one way to help seniors feel connected to others and provide much-needed stimulation. Examples include older adults serving the young through mentorship programs—seniors volunteering in schools as reading assistants, tutors and resources for career and parenting guidance. There are also examples of programs where younger generations visit senior centers and communities for service learning projects; elementary schools may encourage young students to become pen pals with a local senior, or visit a senior community to hear their stories and learn from them. There are even examples of older adults and the young sharing settings: day care centers that house both adult care and childcare programs are a growing trend. Age and ageing are unfortunately equated with ‘weakness’, ‘frailty’, ‘loss of beauty’, ‘disease’, ‘death’, etc. Older people are deprived of their rights, privacy, confidentiality, and autonomy. This is further compounded in those who stay in assisted living facilities and those with mental health conditions and dementia.
These narratives need to change early and the youth can be the flag-bearers for the same. Intergenerational bonding can go a long way in creating ties within families and respect for values and opinions, thereby fostering age-friendly societies. This will be in line with the ongoing United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing 2021–2030. The Decade calls for a global battle against ageism and integrated care for older people. International Youth Day every year is thus an occasion and an important reminder to protect the human rights and dignity of older people in our country.
Solidarity across generations is key for sustainable development. As we navigate the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is especially important to nurture societies that we would all like to live in when we inevitably age.
Consultant Psychiatrist, Apollo Multispeciality Hospitals, Kolkata